How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

Sit-ins and Freedom Riders

Freedom Riders, bus Freedom Riders, bus
A mob of whites blocks the exit to keep the bus carrying the Freedom Riders from leaving. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

By the beginning of the '60s, schools and universities across the country were integrated, and the success in Montgomery had sprouted civil rights organizations in cities everywhere. Not every business or school complied with the changes, though, and black students started to demonstrate the fact that inequalities still existed, staging what were called sit-ins.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr., sat down at the counter of a Woolworth's and asked to be served. They knew they wouldn't be, because the lunch counter at which they sat was for whites only. Still, they continued to sit and refused to get up until they were forced out when the store closed for the night. The next day, a much larger group of students showed up either to participate or witness the sit-in, and after newspapers and civil rights groups heard about the activity, sit-ins were held in several cities across the country.

These sit-ins were very simple in nature. A group of students would sit down at a lunch counter and ask to be served. If they were given food or coffee, they'd move on down to the next counter. Once they were refused service, they would remain seated until served. The key during the sit-ins was nonviolence — if participants were hit, they couldn't hit back. If they were taunted, they remained silent. Students also dressed in their Sunday best to set themselves apart from the heckling white students. They were met with the usual share of beatings and imprisonments, and by August 1961, more than 3,000 students across the country were arrested.

Another group that set out to test the judgment of the Supreme Court was the Freedom Riders. On May 4, 1961, a racially mixed group of people left Washington, D.C., on a bus and headed for New Orleans. Along the way, groups mixed up their seating — whites moved to the blacks-only section and vice versa. They knew what they were doing was perfectly legal according to recent Supreme Court cases, but they also knew they'd meet heavy opposition from the public. They simply wanted to make sure the government would respond in a moment of crisis. With rising tensions and the possibility of violence, the Freedom Riders were even prepared for death.

Almost everywhere the riders stopped along their trip, they were met with angry protesters and violence. Black and white Freedom Riders were beaten, buses were stoned and tires were slashed. More than 300 riders were arrested during the trip, which never finished its trip to New Orleans. The Freedom Riders raised civil rights awareness, however, and especially caught the attention of the young Kennedy Administration.