On February 1, 50 years ago, four African American freshman at North Carolina AT&T sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth's and ordered a coffee, NPR reports.
The students had intentionally breached color lines at a lunch counter barred from African Americans. Flustered, the manager shut the restaurant down.
But the idea caught on. The next day four students turned into twenty-five, then twenty-five into sixty-three, sixty-three into three hundred. Likewise, one city became two, two cities became three, three cities became thirty by March first. Within a few months, the sit-ins had spread to more than seventy southern cities and fifty thousand people. The sit-ins changed the course of the civil rights movement.
The sit-ins also inspired the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which in turn supported every great civil rights advance of the next few years, including Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer, the marches in Birmingham and Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To read more about how a rag-tag bunch of college students inspired a nationwide movement for equality, visit NPR.org.