Flashback: How student sit-ins in downtown Atlanta sparked change in the 1960s

Over four consecutive days in February 1961, roughly 80 activists—including nine at a coffee shop on Forsyth Street—were arrested and refused bail, testing the limits of the county jail.

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The Coffee Shop 1961

Uncredited/AP Images

The movement to desegregate lunch counters began in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, but the nation was watching Atlanta, the South’s center of commerce and influence. On March 15, 1960, police arrested more than 75 students from the Atlanta University Center at sit-ins across the city. When students resumed classes in the fall, they demonstrated yet again and joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest of the whites-only Magnolia Room at Rich’s. Over four consecutive days in February 1961, roughly 80 activists—including nine at a coffee shop on Forsyth Street (above)—were arrested and refused bail, testing the limits of the county jail. The civil disobedience worked: Sales at restaurants in the city at the end of 1960 had dropped 13 percent compared to the previous year. Nearly one year after the protests began, the city’s black and white establishments reached a compromise: The sit-ins would end immediately, and lunch counters would desegregate in the fall. The protesters balked at the delay, and, following the deal, the older generation of local civil rights leaders would slowly pass the torch to younger activists. More than half of the retailers didn’t honor the agreement, and not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Atlanta truly desegregate.

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

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