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A Seat at the Counter

Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case that found segregated schools unconstitutional, brought hope that change was coming. But while the 1954 ruling may have marked the beginning of the end for “separate but equal,” in cities across the country, change was slow in coming. Six years after Brown, segregated facilities were still common - not just schools, but buses and restaurants, movie theaters, and hospitals.

In February 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s five-and-dime and asked to be served. Under the restaurant’s policy, the students were refused. But the sit-ins, as a means of protest, took off across the South. Students in East Tennessee, many from the historically black Knoxville College, were eager to take up the cause by staging sit-ins of their own.

John Duncan Sr. was Knoxville’s mayor at the time. He believed he could work with local leaders to negotiate the city’s peaceful desegregation. Those negotiations broke down, but Duncan worked to protect the protesters who marched downtown to sit-in at lunch counters and picket outside local theaters. And while Knoxville didn’t see the level of violence experienced in other cities, the counter-protesters were angry, loud, and determined to keep downtown segregated.

In "A Seat at the Counter," you’ll hear from five people who participated in the sit-ins, marches, and protests that started in June 1960 and ended three years later with the full desegregation of Knoxville. Their stories reveal the pain of racial segregation and show their determination to fight injustice, a fight they say, nearly sixty years later, isn’t over yet.

"A Seat at the Counter" was recorded and produced by Leslie Snow. Brandon Hollingsworth edited the story. Todd Steed helped select and edit the music. Susan Cunningham created the biographical graphics seen in the slideshow. Special thanks to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.