On Feb. 1, 1960, in the Tennessee city and elsewhere across the U.S. South, African-American college students violated segregationist state and local laws prohibiting them from sitting at the same store lunch counters as whites, protesting a situation in which they were encouraged to spend their money at the stores but weren't allowed to eat there, USA Today reported.
The newspaper said the lunch counters were the "Jim Crow" era's equivalent of fast-food restaurants and were common in department stores, drugstores and five-and-dime stores. In 1960, at least 11 Southern states prohibited the mixing of races in most public areas, such as restaurants, schools, courtrooms, buses and trains.
More than 3,000 sit-in protesters were arrested in 1960 alone, historian Clayborne Carson told USA Today. In the protests, the college students were arrested and jailed, with some of them undergoing beatings administered by white mobs.
"The sit-ins were the real starting point of the protests of the 1960s," said Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.