Racial segregation was not illegal in the United States on February 1, 1960, when four African American college students sat down at a "whites-only" lunch counter at an F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Politely asking for service, their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats.
In Greensboro, hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community joined in a six-month-long nonviolent protest that spread to other places in the South. Many people continued to show their unhappiness through sit-ins. Some held picket signs on the streets outside the store with messages for people to see, while other people decided to boycott. All of these protest strategies drew national attention and caused Woolworth, and other businesses that practiced segregation, to lose customers .
The protests put college students and young people into an important position in the ongoing movement to challenge racial inequality across the United States. Some of the people involved in the protests were sent to jail. Their commitment led to the end of segregation at the lunch counter on July 25, 1960; but, it took four more years before segregation finally ended across the country with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The National Museum of American History added a portion of the Greensboro lunch counter to its collection after the Woolworth store shut down in the 1990s. Today, it is on display as one of the landmark objects in the Museum. Learn more about the counter.
Join the Student Sit-Ins: Videos & Teacher Guide
In this activity, students will watch and discuss a 22-minute video of a theater presentation created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The activity could also include an in-classroom simulation, extension activities, and a sing-along performance of a freedom song.
- Teacher Guide (.pdf)
This theater presentation happens at the National Museum of American History, where a piece of the actual lunch counter from the protest is on display. The year is 1960. An African American college student (a fictional composite character) is conducting a training session for people interested in joining a student sit-in to protest racial segregation. The student speaks about the recent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, and coaches members of the audience in the philosophy and tactics of non-violent direct action.
Ideas for Using the Videos in Your Classroom
The presentation is divided into five sections. Before each section, there are focus questions that students should consider while they are watching that section of the video. After watching, you can review the answers to the focus questions for that section. The additional discussion prompts can also be used to follow-up on the content covered in that section and help students integrate it into prior knowledge or make personal connections.
- Act 1
- Act 2
- Act 3
- Act 4(Note: This section can be organized as a classroom simulation.)
- Act 5
- Full Version - 15 minutes
Additional Learning Resources on Civil Rights
- Classroom Activity: A Landmark in American Justice
- Video and Virtual Object: The Lunch Counter (Object of History)
OurStory – For K-4 Children & Their Families
OurStory is designed to help children and adults enjoy exploring history together through children’s literature, everyday objects, and hands on activities. Suitable for home or classroom use.
Freedom on the Menu
Read a historical fiction story about the lunch counter from the point of view of a young girl named Connie. Her perspective weaves emotions together with the historical details of the protests.
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Martin's Big Words
Read an illustrated biography that traces Dr. King's life from his childhood and includes quotes from his writings and speeches. Explore Dr. King's story and then try fun activities to learn more about him and other brave Americans who worked on the civil rights movement.
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