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Desegregation of Greensboro Businesses, 1962-1963
In the fall of 1962, memories of the 1960 sit-ins were still fresh in the minds of Greensboro residents. The protest which began on February 1, 1960 at the Woolworth’s lunch counter had ended that summer with the integration of eating facilities in several of the downtown department stores. However, as William Chafe notes, “in most areas of education, employment, public policy and private associations, the two years following the first sit-ins witnessed an almost complete lack of progress toward equal opportunity or public desegregation.”1 Many African Americans who had reveled in the victory of 1960 were no longer content with the token desegregation of Greensboro’s public accommodations.
With the return of students to campus in 1962, protest activity grew dramatically as African Americans consistently demonstrated at nearly a dozen segregated businesses including McDonald’s, Biff Burger, S&W and Mayfair Cafeterias, Hot Shoppe, and the Center and Carolina Theatres. Many of the protests were directed by the local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter, which had been formed in the summer of 1962 and was led by North Carolina A&T University sophomore William Thomas. Evander Gilmer, who was both a student at A&T and treasurer for CORE, described the increase in protest activity as partially a result of “a lapse in time from when the first sit-ins took place…there were a lot of demonstrations, and then relatively nothing, it seemed, happening. And yet…there were things happening other places now and almost nothing happening in Greensboro…It seemed that other cities, other blacks throughout the South had begun to make known their discontent with segregation, and there were things being done. Places were opening. And that places were opening—were integrating was some of the motivation for starting again…”2
November 1962 witnessed the first significant mass arrests of picketers and sit-in participants—a foreshadowing of events to come. By May of 1963, the demonstrations had reached a fever pitch. More so than ever before, black students intentionally hoped to send a message through their arrest. Following several businesses’ rejection of pro-integration resolutions from the Chamber of Commerce and Merchants Association, on May 17 and 18 hundreds of demonstrators responded with acts of civil disobedience at the offending locations. The resulting mass arrests—over seven hundred individuals, mainly students—filled prison facilities past capacity, and the old polio rehabilitation center and National Guard Armory had to be converted into makeshift prisons in order to accommodate their ever increasing numbers.3
As the city struggled to find ways to provide adequate food and shelter to the masses of incarcerated students, Bennett president Willa Player visited the jail daily, helping arrange mail, food, and distribution class assignments for her girls. Meanwhile, North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford directed Lewis Dowdy, president of state-supported NC A&T University, to have all jailed A&T students released into his custody.4
Listen to NC Governor Terry Sanford
and Greensboro CORE leaderTony Stanley
give their conflicting opinions on the success of the mass arrest strategy.
With hundreds of students behind bars, it would be up to older members of the black community to champion the cause of equal rights in public accommodations. As William Chafe observed, despite the preceding six months of protest activities, a generation gap existed in the African American community, and “many whites continued to believe that black people—and older blacks in particular—were contented.”5 A Coordinating Council was formed between the NAACP, local ministers, the Greensboro Citizens Association, and CORE to unite efforts of the older black community and young activists. On May 19, 1963, CORE national chairman James Farmer visited a mass meeting in Greensboro to rally black adults to be ready and willing to go to jail.6
On May 22, 1963 more than two thousand African Americans of all ages and classes silently marched to downtown Greensboro to show their dedication to achieving racial equality, making it the largest march in the city’s history. Following the march, Mayor David Schenck appointed a new negotiating committee headed by Dr. George Evans, an African American physician and local school board member, to encourage business owners to desegregate.7 An emboldened Coordinating Council then presented the city leadership with a list of broad demands that they required in order to call off further marches. In addition to a public accommodations ordinance outlawing racial segregation, they requested demonstrators’ charges be dismissed, fully desegregated schools and staff, promotion of black officers, and the hiring of blacks in other city departments.8 On May 24, black activists agreed to a temporary halt of their demonstrations while the Evans Committee undertook negotiations.
A few days later, 1,643 white residents of Greensboro allowed their names to be published by the Greensboro Daily News in a full-page and partial-page ad in support of the integration of Greensboro’s businesses.9 However, no progress seemed forthcoming, and the demonstrators began marching again on June 2, largely led by then-A&T student Jesse Jackson. On June 4, 540 students and adults joined him in a silent march at which he declared, ‘we are concerned with actions, not words. We won’t stop until we get what we want.’10 The next evening, Jackson led close to seven hundred blacks to City Hall and was charged with “inciting a riot.” In response to Jackson’s public arrest at Church of the Redeemer the following night, hundreds of demonstrators sang, danced, and chanted while they marched to Jefferson Square, the main business area in downtown, and sat in the streets. City police tried to remove them for blocking traffic, but the protestors demanded to be arrested and several hundred were taken into custody.
Listen to Cecil Bishop's
recollections of the sit-down in the square
Once Mayor Schenck received word of the chaos at Jefferson Square, he was compelled to publically address Greensboro residents. The statement was his boldest by far. On June 7, he appealed to all businesses to desegregate immediately and for blacks to halt protests. He asserted, “now is the time to throw aside the shackles of past customs. Selection of customers purely by race is outdated, morally unjust, and not in keeping with either Democratic or Christian philosophy.”11
For the most part, Mayor Schenck’s plea was quickly observed. By June 13 eight more Greensboro restaurants chose to desegregate, bringing the ratio of eating establishments open to African Americans to 1 in 4. In July, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants Association insisted on a resolution calling for the immediate desegregation of all public spaces.12 By the fall of 1963, close to 40 percent of Greensboro businesses had been integrated.13 Human Relations Commission chairman W.O. Conrad declared that “previous pro-segregationists in powerful positions in city have begun to soften their attitude under persuasive selling through appeal to moral issue.”14
On July 2, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law which prohibited any and all forms of racial segregation in public places. Yet African Americans in Greensboro had already expanded their movement for civil rights beyond lunch counters to include school integration and equal employment opportunities. As one activist stated, not only do “we want freedom to go anywhere any other person is free to go, [we want] to look for jobs and be hired on the basis of merit and not be turned down because of the color of [our] skin.” In the continuing battle for equal employment and other rights, African Americans in Greensboro would build on many of the nonviolent direct-action tactics from their struggles to desegregate businesses between 1960 and 1963.
PhD candidate, UNCG
UNCG Digital Projects Coordinator and CRG PI
1. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 154.
4.Eugene Pfaff, interview with Willa Player, 3 December 1979, Greensboro VOICES Collection, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Chafe, 177, 181, 184.
7. The Evans Committee consisted of ten members: 5 black and 5 white, including Dr. Simkins of the NAACP.
9. Greensboro Daily News, May 26 and June 2, 1963.
11. Untitled article in New York Times, June 7, 1963, Folder 2: Correspondence, May-June 1963, David Schenck Papers, Southern Historical Collection.
12. James Farmer, “Mass Action Makes North Carolina Live up to Liberal Reputation,” CORE-Lator, July 1963.
14. Letter from W.O. Conrad to William Thomas, September 16, 1963, Folder 10: Greensboro Commission on Human Relations December 21, 1962-August 12, 1964, David Schenck Papers, Southern Historical Collection.
15. “More Demonstrations Planned Here,” Greensboro Daily News, September 15, 1963.