The Influence of Colleges on the Civil Rights Movement

By Hannah Park

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a revolutionary point in American history. While most people know of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, the influence of hundreds of young people – college students – is often overlooked. However, these students were as important as the great leaders in bringing about social change in American society.

Greensboro Sit-Ins

The Greensboro sit-in was a nonviolent protest against a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and it was also one of the first critical movements during the Civil Rights Era that was led predominantly by college students. Organized by four young black men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, also known as the Greensboro Four, the sit-in fought specifically against the racial inequality that was prominent in North Carolina at the time. These four men entered a Woolworth’s general merchandise store on February 1, 1960. The four politely requested service at the counter while their orders were refused and the police were called. However, the police claimed they were unable to take action because the men were paying customers who had not initiated violence or taken any provocative actions.

The local media soon learned of the story, and a photo of the Greensboro Four in the local papers quickly expanded the influence of the protest. The next day, the four men returned to Woolworth’s lunch counter, now accompanied by about twenty other university students. They continued this for the next few days until the protestors had taken every available seat in the store and spilled out to the sidewalk outside. Soon, national media began to cover the story of the sit-ins, and by July of 1960, the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth was serving black patrons (Ray). The unexpected success of the Greensboro Sit-Ins lead to new milestones in a long history of racial prejudice. As a result, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was established, providing a gateway for larger and more organized movements that would impact the cause.


(New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection)


SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) & the Freedom Rides

The SNCC was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina in April of 1960. It emerged from the Greensboro Sit-Ins, which started in February of that year. In the period of a few months, the four students who started the sit-ins grew to two hundred activists who began attending meetings on the campus of Shaw University organized by Ella Baker, a veteran civil rights organizer and SCLC official (“Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)”). The SNCC worked to get universal voting rights for all American citizens with their saying “One Man, One Vote.” This idea also encouraged African Americans to become elected officials across the south (“SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference – What is SNCC?”).

The main force of the SNCC came through the involvement of students in the 1961 Freedom Rides. These journeys, which were set up by both SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), involved sending integrated teams of college students into Mississippi and other southern states through the Trailways and Greyhound buses (Davis). The rides were designed to test the US Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that banned segregation in public interstate transportation.

The first group of Freedom Riders left on May 4, 1961 and was comprised of seven blacks and six whites who left Washington, D.C. on two public buses bound for the Deep South. Their journey was abruptly stopped when the students met violence in Anniston, Alabama. There, one of their buses was burned, and in Birmingham, several dozen whites attacked the riders two blocks from the sheriff’s office. However, rather than letting the violence of the whites sway their motives, the CORE and SNCC leaders decided to reinforce the group of Freedom Riders and continue the trip to Montgomery. There, they were savagely attacked by a mob of over one thousand whites. The extreme violence and the indifference of local police caused people nationwide to support the riders, which put pressure on President Kennedy to end the violence (“The Freedom Rides”). The second group of riders, which was composed of eleven African Americans and one white student, made their way to Jackson on May 25, 1961, at a local Trailways bus terminal. Another team used the Greyhound buses on the same day, but both groups were arrested by local authorities for attempting to use segregated facilities at the terminals. In the late spring and summer of 1961, teams of Freedom Riders continued to pour into Jackson (Davis).




Medgar Evers

Some influential members of the civil rights movement were memorable for causing others to take up the cause. Medgar Evers was the first field officer in Mississippi for the NAACP (“NAACP History: Medgar Evers”), which was the only nationally affiliated civil rights organization at the time. As an Alcorn student, Evans traveled from Lorman to Jackson to participate in interracial youth discussions, many of which were organized by Ernest Bornski, a professor from Tougaloo College. Attending these discussions and meetings convinced Evers that college students had an important role to play in the civil rights movement.

Evers then spent his time convincing young people to join the movement for racial equality by creating student-centered branches of the NAACP. The most active areas of this movement were in the towns of Jackson and Hattiesburg. Jackson benefited from the proximity of three local black colleges: Jackson, Campbell, and Tougaloo. These colleges gave Evers the ability to recruit many college students to take part in the movement. Out of the Hattiesburg branch of the NAACP came several students who would grow up to become important leaders in the civil rights movement. The first was Clyde Kennard, the first African American to apply to Mississippi Southern College, now called the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1958, Kennard became the NAACP youth council president. Two other members of the Hattiesburg auxiliary were Joyce and Dorie Ladner, two sisters who served as youth leaders at Tougaloo College and later became members of the SNCC (Davis).


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Ray, Michael. “Greensboro Sit-In.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 29 Nov 2013. <>.

“The Freedom Rides.” CORE: Congress of Racial Equality. rides.htm. Web. 29 Nov 2013.

New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection. Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In. 1960. Photograph. Library of CongressWeb. 2 Dec 2013. <>.

Fankhauser, David. Freedom Rider Bus is burned in Anniston, AL. 1960. Photograph. UC – Clermont College BiologyWeb. 2 Dec 2013. <>.

“NAACP History: Medgar Evers.” NAACP. N.p.. Web. 1 Dec 2013. <>.

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