Sit ins, Freedom Rides and James Meredith, 1960-62

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Key learning objectives

  • Explain the sit-ins, the freedom rides and the response to them and the significance of the Meredith case

Key Organisations

  • SNCC (‘Snick’) – Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee
  • SCLC – Southern Christian Leadership Conference – led by Martin Luther King
  • CORE – Congress on Racial Equality – played a key role in training activists in non-violent techniques

Key personalities

  • Martin Luther King – leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Congress
  • Ella Baker – disagreed with Martin Luther King about how the students should organise. Whereas King wanted them to join the SCLC, Baker encouraged them to set up their own group, SNCC
  • ‘Bull’ Connor, chief of police, Birmingham, Alabama

Key terms

  • Sit-ins – resulted in fewer seats available and fewer goods being sold
  • Jail not bail
  • Freedom Rides

Key events

  • 1960
    • 1st February – four African-American men who were students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College, visit Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they sit down at a whites-only lunch counter to order coffee. Although they are denied service, the four men sit politely and silently at the counter until the store closes. This starts the series of Greensboro sit-ins and also triggers similar protests in the South.
    • February 2nd – the students returned and were joined by 25 others and repeated the exercise
    • 3rd February – 80 more students joined the sit-ins
    • 4th February – 300 students joined the Greensboro sit-in and students in other parts of the town copied the action; it was also copied in other states. Over 70,000 people took part in the sit-ins, generating huge publicity
    • 16th March – President Eisenhower announced that he was ‘deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of the constitution’
    • Arrests led to a new tactic: ‘Jail not bail’ tactics caused the jails in the south to become overcrowded
    • Boycotts took the big organisations by surprise but they got involved: NAACP, CORE and the SCLC organised a boycott of shops with segregated lunch counters and helped to train student activists in non-violent techniques.
    • This form of economic protest went beyond mere boycott – it was more visible and more confrontational and drew publicity. It was also easy to reproduce in a variety of different contexts – soon there would be wade-ins in the beaches, pray-ins in churches, read-ins in libraries.
    • 15th April – Ella Baker set up a meeting of students at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina
    • 25th July – The downtown Greensboro Woolworth desegregates its lunch counter after six months of sit-ins.
    • 19th October – Martin Luther King, Jr. joins a student sit-in at Rich’s, a whites-only restaurant within an Atlanta department store. He, along with 51 other protesters are arrested on the charge of trespassing. Because King was probation for driving without having a valid Georgia license, although he had an Alabama license, he was sentenced by a Dekalb County judge to four months in prison where he was to do hard labor. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy phones Coretta, Martin Luther King’s wife, to provide encouragement while Robert Kennedy, John’s brother, convinces the Dekalb county judge to release him on bail. This call convinces many African-Americans to support Democratic politicians.
    • By the end of 1960, 120 towns had desegregated their lunch counters
    • December, 1960 – Four years after Browder vs Gayle had banned segregation on state Transport, the supreme Court confirmed a ruling from 1946 that inter-state transport should be desegregated. it also ordered that transport facilities such as waiting rooms, had to be desegregated.
    • 5th December – In a 7-2 decision handed down by the Supreme Court in the case Boynton v. Virginia case, the court rules that segregation on vehicles that travel between states and in waiting rooms used for such travel is unlawful and unconstitutional because it is in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.
  • 1961
    • CORE Activists planned ‘freedom rides’ to show that these rulings were not being followed. The aim was to provoke a reaction to generate publicity and force action from the government. SNCC got involved.
    • James Farmer, the founder of CORE, would later say that they planned the Freedom Rides with the specific aim of creating a crisis, of provoking white violence and thereby creating headline news all over the world, affecting the nation’s image abroad. ‘An international crisis – that was our strategy’.
    • 4th May, seven African American men and six white activists who are known as the Freedom Riders, leave Washington, D.C. and travel through the rigidly segregated Deep South, with the goal to test Boynton v. Virginia.
    • 14 May – Anniston fire bombing: the Freedom Riders who travel in two separate groups, are attacked outside Birmingham, Alabama and Anniston, Alabama. They were due to arrive at the station in Anniston but arrived to find it closed. They were met instead by an angry crowd, led by local Ku Klux Klan leader William Chappell. The crowd attacked the bus and its windows were smashed and the tyres damaged. Eventually, someone threw a firebomb through the broken windows. The white mob held the doors shut but as the fire approached the petrol tank, the mob left the bus, fearing an explosion. This gave passengers just enough time to escape, though some were attacked as they left the bus. The second bus was also attacked in anniston – passengers were dragged off, beatuen up but got back on the bus and continued to Montgomery where they were again met by Klansmen and beaten. Police chief, ‘Bull’ Connor ordered the police to do nothing.
    • 15 May, the Birmingham group of Freedom Riders wish to continue their trip, but no bus agrees to take them so they instead fly to New Orleans.
    • 20th May – members of the press as well as freedom riders were attacked by hundreds of Klan members in Montgomery, and this spread to attacks on the wider black community, but it was the freedom riders who were arrested for starting a riot.
    • 29th May, President Kennedy makes an announcement ordering the Interstate Commerce Commission to create and enforce stricter fines and regulations for facilities and buses that will not to integrate. He threatened to send in US marshals to enforce desegregation of interstate buses and bus stations if states did not enough. More freedom riders were arrested before the end of the year – including 300 at Jackson, Mississippi in August. But generally the bus companies accepted the warnings and by the end of 1961 the freedom rides came to an end.
    • May – James Meredith applied to to Mississippi University and is rejected; he asked the NAACP to take his case to court.
    • November – Civil rights activists take part in a series of protests, meetings and marches in Albany, Georgia, which are later called the Albany Movement.
    • December – King comes to Albany and joins the protesters, where he stays for nine months.
  • 1962
    • June – the Supreme Court instructed Mississippi University to admit James Meredith
    • August 10th – King announces that he is leaving Albany. While the Albany Movement is considered a failure, King gathers information here that is applied in Birmingham, Alabama.
    • September – with the support of the Governor of Mississippi the state legislature passed a law that stated no one convicted of a ‘felony’ would be admitted; Meredith had previously been accused and convicted of a’false voter registration’ and was automatically suspended.
    • 26th September – Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi, orders state troopers to stop Meredith from entering the University of Mississippi campus.
    • 29th September – President John F Kennedy ordered those ‘obstructing the law’ to ‘desist’ – riots followed
    • 30th September – Kennedy sent hundreds of Federal Officials, including Marshalls to escort Meredith to register. Riots resulted in 300 hundred injuries and two civilian deaths; 2000 Federal troops were sent in by the president and they managed to stop the rioting
    • 1st October – James Meredith successfully registered with the University. He was guarded by 300 state troops for the next year until he graduated. He is the first black student at the university.

James_Meredith_OleMiss (1)


  1. List the ways in which sit-ins were a) similar and b) different to the Bus Boycott.
  2. Write a paragraph explaining why sit-ins were a successful method of protest
  3. List ways in which freedom rides and sit-ins were similar and different
  4. Create a mind map on the significance of the freedom rides, including the nature of support, the numbers who took part, its success, the racial profile of protestors and anything else you think might be worth noting
  5. Explain two effects of the Meredith case

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