These are the iconic pictures of the sit-ins we’re commemorating this week. Above are the four students who started the movement on February 1, 1960, when they sat down at a Whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. They are, from left to right, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond.
The pictures below capture the backlash. They’re of a 1963 sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi. By one account, members of the all-White Jackson police force stood guard outside, while several FBI agents (the guys in back wearing shades) "observed" from inside. That White guy at the counter, that’s Tougaloo professor and community activist Hunter Gray (John R. Salter) who helped organize the Jackson sit-ins. And that’s blood on his shirt. All of the protesters had been covered in slop, and some were beaten with brass knuckles and broken bottles.
I don’t know how many other photos like this exist; a colleague sent me the one to the right some time ago and it's the first time I had ever seen it. So I wonder whether others are out there, others that we've collectively chosen not to remember because it's the part of the story we want to forget.
Some of the sit-ins were less explosive than others, but even then, the response from White business owners was hardly all that it could have been. In Greensboro, Woolworth’s store manager decided to ignore the Black students at the White counter. He didn’t serve them, but he didn’t call the police either for fear of provoking violence from the growing assembly of White hecklers. But he wasn't struggling with closeted racial consciousness; he just didn't want to frighten away the rest of his White customers.
This, unfortunately, is part of the hidden narrative behind too many civil rights milestones, when attitudes began to soften, not because segregationists came to see the light, but because they simply wanted to make a buck.