This blog post was authored by Katy Sommerfeld, a student in Professor Eckelmann Berghel’s HIST 3475: Modern Civil Rights Struggle class that curated an exhibit on display in the George Connor Special Collections Reading Room, located in room 439 of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library in Spring 2019.
Local Government Reactions to Howard Students’ Civil Rights Activism
The history of youth civil rights activism in Chattanooga is inspiring. The Howard high school students’ demonstrations at downtown restaurants and movie theaters represent the majority of the activism that occurred in the area during the 1960s. These brave students took the movement into their own hands and organized sit-ins, look-ins, and marches that advocated for their rights as young Americans.
The student demonstrations invoked harsh reactions from pro-segregationist locals. A near race riot broke out downtown after a particularly large sit-in, and violence resulted from white youths in the area. The local police arrested twelve participants, and the names of those arrested were recorded in the local newspaper.
The increased tension of race relations and the heightened media coverage pressured the local government to respond to the demonstrations occurring downtown. In March of 1960, after some students began participating in “look-ins” at movie theaters, they were fined $50 each at court. In May of 1960, a local judge passed a court order that limited sit-in demonstration participation to six individuals only. This limitation prevented future sit-ins from having the same impact. Despite this set back, sit-ins continued, and eventually some businesses downtown opened their doors to African American patrons.
The Howard school students were pioneers of the civil rights movement in Chattanooga. They spearheaded the protests and represented some of the movement’s youngest leaders. Their participation in local activism provoked government retaliation and white resistance, but their efforts prevailed, and some local businesses answered their calls for desegregation. Their activism highlights an important moment in local history and is worthy of public commemoration.
Chattanooga Public Schools. Chattanooga City Schools Map, 1968. Scale not given. In: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Special Collections. Chattanooga, TN.
“Near Race Riot of 500 Teen-Agers Leaves 12 Arrests, Several Injured, 1 in Hospital”. The Chattanooga Times. February 25, 1960.
“6 of 12 Teen-Age Negroes Nabbed at ‘Look-ins’ Fined Maximum $50 for Disorderly Conduct.” The Chattanooga Times. March 11, 1961.
“Court Order Alters Sit-In: Juvenile Judge Puts Limit of 6 on Groups”. The Chattanooga Times. May 18, 1960.
“Negroes Get Service at City Places: 20 Accommodated at 7 Lunch Counters Without Trouble.” The Chattanooga Times.August 6, 1960.