October 19th, 1960

Martin Luther King Arrested in Atlanta Sit-In Protest

On October 19, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and 51 others were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, after refusing to leave their seats at downtown department store lunch counters. The Jim Crow segregation laws and customs heavily in force in Atlanta at the time dictated that black and white people use separate water fountains, bathrooms, ticket booths, and other public spaces, and banned black people from being served at 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, 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 over 70,000 participants, generated over 3000 arrests and, in cities like Nashville, Tennessee, led to desegregation.

Dr. King, an invited participant at the student-organized Atlanta sit-in, was arrested with students and local activists for violating a 1960 law that made refusing to leave private property a misdemeanor offense. Charges against 16 of the 51 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 that year.