College students’ 1960s sit-ins helped bring down racial barriers

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Albert Paul Brinson points to his youthful image as one of nearly 200 college students recruited in 1960 to hold peaceful “sit-ins” at 10 Atlanta restaurants that refused service to African Americans. The protests put Brinson in jail, along with other students, and on the front page of The Atlanta Journal. “It couldn’t have gone off more perfectly if Cecil B. DeMille had directed it,” he said of the well-orchestrated actions that helped bring social change.

ATLANTA — Non-violent protests, in which African-American students would “sit in” at lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960, led the Woolworth Co. to remove its policy of racial discrimination in the South. Similar “sit-ins” were held in other cities.

Albert Paul Brinson, now a retired American Baptist minister with lifelong ties to the family of Martin Luther King Jr., was a 21-year-old senior at Morehouse College recruited as part of the well-orchestrated Atlanta Student Movement that put him in jail and on the front page of the March 15, 1960 edition of The Atlanta Journal.

PRECISION

“It couldn’t have gone off more perfectly if Cecil B. DeMille had directed it,” Brinson recently told some current students touring the exhibit, “Start Something: Activism and the Atlanta Student Movement,” that continues through the end of March at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center (AUC).

Inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins, campus leaders from Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown and Clark colleges, Atlanta University and the Interdenominational Theological Center — which made up the AUC — were determined to do something to bring change to the home base of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Those plans were carried out with great preparation and precision, said Brinson, under the leadership of Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays and others.

“The whole thing was coordinated,” said Brinson, recalling secretive late night training that included fasting and rehearsals, with taunting by white students from neighboring schools recruited by campus leaders.

The strategy, he added, “was clever.”

APPEAL, ACTION

A few days before staging the highly public, sit-in protests in local dining places, student organizers produced “An Appeal for Human Rights” that was printed as a full-page document in Atlanta newspapers. Urged by the presidents of the six related schools and conceived by students, the appeal called for an end to racial discrimination that “is not in keeping with the ideals of Democracy and Christianity.”

“We sat down and brainstormed about what to include,” Brinson recalled. “We worked with this for nights.”

The final document, edited by Roslyn Pope, president of the Spelman College Student Government Association, “went out first,” said Brinson. Then the action followed.

“We were told to dress well and be on our best behavior,” said Brinson, designated as the spokesperson for his group of students.

The many nights of intense, but highly confidential training made the protests successful, he said — as well as the personal, spiritual preparation for carrying out the mission as planned.

“It became a spiritual experience when the waitress snatched the napkin holder off the table,” said Brinson.

Then the manager came over to ask what the students wanted. The well-rehearsed, polite response was given again and again by Brinson: “to be served.”

JAIL TIME

The protests were carefully scheduled to get the most attention possible, said Brinson.

He led a well-dressed group of students to a cafeteria across from Union Station — at a time when reporters from the nearby newspaper offices would be headed to lunch.

Nine other restaurants were simultaneously targeted for the non-violent protests. Of the nearly 200 participants, 79 were arrested when the polite students refused to leave without being served.

Brinson, who was baptized as an 8-year-old by “Rev. King Sr.,” as he called his father figure, was relieved to see the respected pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church enter the jail. The night was growing long following the lunchtime arrest.

“I’ll take A.D. King, Otis Moss and Albert Brinson,” he recalled overhearing the pastor say to a jail official. “This is a property bond; if I can get some more, let me know.”

While taking a bus home, Brinson was surprised to see his face on the cover of the newspaper — identified only as a “Negro.” Fearful of recognition, he hopped off at the next stop and walked home.

Brinson said he didn’t consider the experience to be historic or heroic.

“I was just Al from ‘the corners,’” he said. “It was just the right thing to do then.”

INSPIRING OTHERS

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Albert Brinson gives firsthand accounts of the Atlanta Student Movement to current students (left to right) Da’Shaun Harrison, Yemisi Miller-Tonnet and Avery Jackson. They met Brinson while touring an exhibit at the Atlanta University Center’s Woodruff Library with Morehouse professor Samuel Livingston (right).

The sit-ins “started something,” but did not accomplish the larger task. The Committee on Appeal for Human Rights would work tirelessly for several years to mobilize students to fight against segregation laws.

The peaceful protests by students in Atlanta and elsewhere, however, have inspired others to take courageous stands in the face of injustice. And Brinson makes it his mission to take every opportunity to teach younger generations of the price paid for their freedom.

Often that involves an impromptu history lesson — if not a scolding.

A Morehouse sophomore from New York confessed that he’d not made it over to the King Historic Site yet. He probably has now after Brinson’s stern response: “Young man, people come from all over the world, yet you’re just a few blocks away…”

Morehouse students, said Brinson, felt a particular need to engage in the 1960s protests when one of their own alums emerged as the leader of the civil rights movement.

“We had to do something special,” said Brinson. “It was the home campus of Martin Luther King Jr.”

To Brinson, however, he was just “M.L.,” an older brother figure who was “always joking.” King encouraged Brinson in his call to ministry following a brief career as a teacher and then in a groundbreaking role in the airline industry.

“M.L.,” said Brinson, enrolled him in seminary and on Aug. 4, 1963 presented Albert to the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he joined the ministry staff with the well-known father-and-son team.

“They were family to me,” said Brinson of the King family.

Martin Luther King Jr. and others his senior provided excellent examples for how to live out faith in difficult times and how to bring about change with the weapons of peace and love.

Those lessons came to life for Brinson and other students who put on their Sunday best and headed to Atlanta restaurants where the color of their skin prohibited them from being served.

The goal, however, was larger than integrating a few dining places, he noted. “Wherever life took you, it was segregated” — schools, hospitals, transportation.

“We wanted more than hot dogs.” NFJ

Story and Photos by John D. Pierce