On this dayOct 19, 1960

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Among 52 Arrested in Atlanta Sit-In Protest

Image | Associated Press

On October 19, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fifty-one others were arrested in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, after refusing to leave their seats at segregated department store lunch counters. Under the heavily-enforced Jim Crow segregation laws and customs in Atlanta at the time, black and white people were required to use separate water fountains, bathrooms, ticket booths, and other public spaces. In addition, black people were banned from being served at department store lunch counters.

Similar laws in other Southern states had recently become the focus of a “sit-in” movement, in which black college students calmly and peacefully sat at segregated lunch counters and refused to leave until they were served. In February 1960, three North Carolina A&T students held the first sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. Soon, many more students joined their protest and word of the tactic spread to students in other states. By August 1961, sit-ins had attracted more than 70,000 participants, generated over 3,000 arrests and, in cities like Nashville, Tennessee, successfully led to desegregation.

Dr. King was invited to join the student-organized Atlanta sit-in, and ended up arrested alongside students and local activists under a 1960 law that made refusing to leave private property a misdemeanor offense. Charges against sixteen of the fifty-one protesters were dismissed at their first court appearance, but Dr. King (the most high-profile of the group) was held on charges that his arrest violated a term of state probation imposed earlier that year. After Dr. King was sentenced to six months at hard labor, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy reached out to the King family, helped secure Dr. King’s release, and earned pivotal black votes that would help him win the presidency weeks later.

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