May 28, 1963 – Lunch Counter Sit-In in Jackson, Mississippi

On this day in history, a small group of students and faculty from Tougaloo College, a private and historically black institution in north Jackson, drove downtown and sat at the lunch counter at the five-and-dime store. The group at first consisted of two African American women and one African American man. They were later joined five other Tougaloo students and professors, white and black.

The practice of segregated seating at Woolworth’s lunch counters was part of the store’s stated official policy of following “local custom” (i.e. segregated seating in the South). The attempt to integrate dining places was part of a months-long boycott by blacks of white-owned businesses.

A May 28, 1963, sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., where whites poured sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of the demonstrators. (Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News via AP file)

A May 28, 1963, sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., where whites poured sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of the demonstrators. (Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News via AP file)

Although the group sat peacefully, a white mob arrived, spitting, shouting obscenities at the protestors, dousing the group with condiments and hot coffee, and beating some of them. One student was knocked unconscious. One of the white Tougaloo students who participated in the sit-in recalled the “ugly roar” of the crowd, and told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview:

“Basically, it just seemed that it was never going to end.”

In an article commemorating the event fifty years later, Bill Minor, then a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who had been tipped off about the sit-in by Medgar Evers, watched the scene unfold, and recalled:

“The people working behind the counter at Woolworth’s were afraid to serve anybody,” Minor says. “They just let them sit there. They wouldn’t serve them. That’s what they were ordered to do–not serve any blacks.”

The police at first stood by idly, but eventually moved in and broke up the attacks by whites. Meanwhile, the uninjured protestors continued to sit at the counter until the manager of the store closed it down. But there was a crowd outside, too, and no police officer would escort them out. The (white) President of Tougaloo College, Dr. Adam Daniel Beittel, arriving after he heard what was going on, led the students out of Woolworth’s.

Pictures from the event turned a local protest into a mass movement against segregation in Jackson.

That night, a huge meeting of people gathered to organize more demonstrations, with civil rights leader Medgar Evers addressing the crowd. Two weeks later, Evers, a World War II veteran, was shot in the back by local Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith and died in his driveway three weeks later.

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

While the sit-in was just one of many held across the South, Jackson’s occurred more than three years after a more famous one in Greensboro, N.C.

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