On February 1, 1960, four black freshmen at North Carolina A&T - David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and Ezell Blair - sat down at the lunch counter in a Greensboro F.W. Woolworth store and refused to leave until they were served. Without prompting from any existing civil rights organizations or adult black leadership, they launched a new phase of a student led struggle for freedom. Within a year and a half student sit-ins had spread to over twenty states and one hundred cities.
Lamar Smith was shot dead on the courthouse lawn by a white man in broad daylight while dozens of people watched. The killer was never indicted because no one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man. Smith had organized blacks to vote in a recent election.
There was little consensus on how to promote equality on a national level groups such as the NAACP, CORE, and Dr. Martin Luther King's SCLC, endorsed peaceful methods and believed change could be affected by working around the established system; other groups such as the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Nationalist Movement advocated retaliatory violence and a separation of the races. There were numerous marches, rallies, strikes, riots, and violent confrontations with the police. National leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would be assassinated, violence would claim the lives of young and old, and rigged all-white juries mocked justice in cases involving crimes perpetrated by whites against African Americans.
The supportive environment for protesting was also much different for blacks and for whites. Only 3 percent of the southern black adult population disapproved of the sit-ins, and black college students protested within the context of a local black movement center.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was one phase in the longer black freedom struggle that began when the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 and continues today. Much of the civil rights movement was seen on television.
Between 1940 and 1960 the Great Migration brought over six million African Americans to industrial centers in the urban North and West, where migrants were met with new forms of racial containment. They were often restricted to domestic and retail service work. Those who found industrial employment were kept out of labor unions.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many southern political leaders claimed the desegregation decision violated the rights of states to manage their systems of public education, and they responded with defiance, legal challenges, delays, or token compliance. As a result, school desegregation proceeded very slowly. By the end of the 1950s, less than 10 percent of black children in the South were attending integrated schools.
African-Americans protested against injustice since the earliest slave revolts over 400 years ago. Yet, because of its attempt to dismantle Jim Crow segregation, Brown v. Board of Education can be seen as the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The Court's well-publicized 1954 decision moved white citizens to band together to protect their way of life, but it also bolstered activists who would fight for the next decade to end the indignities perpetrated against one segment of American society, in flagrant violation of federal law.
The genuine reform impulse of Reconstruction was the "first" civil rights movement, as the victorious North attempted to create the conditions whereby African Americans could freely and fully participate in this country as citizens. It was a noble experiment in bi-racial harmony, and, had it succeeded, there probably would have been no need for a "second" civil rights movement.
These events were unfolding at the same time that the percentage of American homes equipped with television sets jumped from 56 to 92%. This was 1955 and television was securing its place in American society. Network news shows were also beginning to expand from the conventional fifteen to thirty minutes format, splitting the time between local and national issues. From the mid to late 1950s, these social, political, technological and cultural events began to converge.