Some of the most impactful moments in civil rights history were not the results of the planning of great leaders, but rather the courageous actions of everyday citizens like the Pine Bluff student-organized sit-ins of 1963.
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On February 1, 1960, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University students Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Jibreel Khazan walked up to the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and politely asked to be served. Though everyone was free to buy home goods at Woolworth’s, its lunch counter did not allow Black patrons to be seated and served. The white waitress refused to serve them and suggested they go to the “stand-up counter” like all the other Black customers. The students, who became known as the Greensboro Four, refused and instead sat peacefully at the counter until the store closed. Although sit-ins were not new, a single photograph taken of the Greensboro Four served as all the publicity needed to inspire and galvanize Black college students across the country to follow their lead and organize their sit-ins.
Students at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now UAPB, were among those brave enough to follow the lead of the Greensboro Four. Events right here in Arkansas also served to inspire the actions of AM&N students. In 1957, The Little Rock Nine dared to challenge the segregation of public schools by enrolling in the then all-white Central High School. In 1958, Chancellor Lawrence Davis Sr. invited civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the AM&N graduation, a move which enthused the local community, but was seen as highly controversial by white Arkansas legislators. Subsequently, in late 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began considering Pine Bluff as their Delta headquarters. They engaged a small group of AM&N students in conversations about direct action campaigns involving sit-ins in the city’s downtown area.
On February 1, 1963, 13 Black AM&N students sat down at the Pine Bluff Woolworth’s lunch counter and politely requested service. The waitress denied their request and instead turned off the lights, forcing the students to sit in the dark for the next three hours. Undeterred, the students stayed put until the store closed. Over the next few days, they returned with more and more of their fellow students. Pressured by racist white legislators in charge of AM&N’s funding, Chancellor Davis was forced to publicly denounce the actions of the students. Privately, he met with the students and, according to some of them, voiced his support for their cause while publicly threatening to suspend and expel them. Despite these threats, the students continued their protests, and 15 students were ultimately suspended then expelled. Expulsion didn't stop these students, though. The protests did not stop until the Woolworth's store owners removed the stools and completely covered the lunch counters, making sit-ins impossible; but by then, the students had successfully organized twenty-eight consecutive days of sit-ins at the store.
In August of 1963, the Pine Bluff branch of the SNCC organized a four-day-long nonviolent demonstration at Pine Bluff’s McDonald’s which denied service to Black customers. Vivian Carroll Jones and over 40 other student volunteers walked into the McDonald's and stood in front of the order counter, but the restaurant staff ignored them. According to Jones, “the orders were served over our heads to white customers.” Angered by their presence, the white customers began verbally and physically assaulting the demonstrators, but SNCC had trained its members to remain calm in moments such as these. Eventually, sounds from outside the restaurant distracted the white patrons as a “mob of about 200 white youth . . . carrying bats, bottles, and bricks” moved toward the restaurant. The SNCC student protestors were then locked in the restaurant by the McDonald’s employees possibly for their safety, though they didn't feel safe knowing the brutality that such mobs often inflicted on nonviolent protestors. However, during this short period, chemicals were thrown on students which caused immediate coughing, tearing, and swelling. They frantically rushed to the restrooms to douse water on themselves. When the doors were finally opened, the police rushed in to arrest the protestors. As they were led out of the McDonald's, the police refused to protect the protestors from the attacking mob, allowing them to be openly assaulted.
Even after experiencing the trauma of this experience, the student protestors didn’t quit. They continued to organize, strategize, and protest, even calling for a “nationwide protest” against hundreds of McDonald’s. In February of 1964, after a year of protesting, the Pine Bluff McDonald’s was finally desegregated. These sit-ins and others across the nation led to Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which now protects all minorities against the discrimination the Pine Bluff students endured.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard