On February 1, 1960, four black freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, entered the Woolworth’s store in downtown Greensboro, seated themselves at the store’s lunch counter, and requested service. As they expected, they were refused, but they continued to “sit-in” until the store closed. Word of their bold and dramatic action spread rapidly, and soon black college students in towns and cities all over the South began conducting lunch counter sit-ins.
One of those cities was Knoxville. On February 15, 1960, a group of Knoxville College students met and decided to begin sit-ins at downtown lunch counters two days later. When the college’s president, Dr. James Colston, learned of the students’ plans, however, he quickly persuaded them to postpone their protests until he could negotiate with city leaders. Colston’s confidence in the negotiation process clearly indicates two of Knoxville’s unique qualities that set the stage for the short and peaceful sit-ins that followed. Knoxville had a long history of open communication between local black and white leaders, and there was a less restrictive form of segregation practiced in the city. In such an atmosphere many local residents were convinced that the violent protracted sit-ins affecting other cities could not happen in their community.
One of those who fervently believed that was Knoxville’s Mayor, John Duncan Sr. Duncan recalled, “I saw the problems going on in Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis, bloodshed almost. . . . I made up my mind that I didn’t want that in Knoxville.” (1) Duncan, along with other city leaders, engaged in seemingly endless negotiations in spring 1960. At one point during this process Mayor Duncan took the bold and unprecedented step of taking a delegation to New York to negotiate with chain store executives. The delegation, which consisted of the mayor, two Knoxville Chamber of Commerce officials, and two Knoxville College student leaders, wanted chain store executives to order their Knoxville branches to desegregate their eating facilities. But the executives refused to meet with the delegation.
In the meantime, Knoxville College students were becoming increasingly impatient with the slow pace of negotiations. Then in May the downtown merchants finally announced that they would not desegregate after all. Many in the black community felt betrayed. They were sure that negotiations would head off demonstrations, but with failure many knew they had no choice. Consequently, on June 9, 1960, the Knoxville sit-ins began, spearheaded by a local group, the Associated Council for Full Citizenship. Regardless of the stand taken by the downtown merchants, Mayor Duncan continued his support of lunch counter integration and directed police officers to protect the rights of sit-in protesters. In such an atmosphere Knoxville’s sit-ins were peaceful and successful in record time. By July 12, after barely a month of lunch counter protests, downtown merchants capitulated and desegregation of downtown eating facilities became a fact of life for all Knoxvillians.
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, “White Lunch Counters and Black Consciousness: The Story of the Knoxville Sit-ins,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 49 (1990): 40-52