Women in the Sit-in Movement

By Briana Bailey, Hope College


From Sitting-in to Standing out: How the Civil Rights Movement Impacted Women’s Rights

In  2013 three women, Alicia Garcia, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the Black Lives Matter Organization. Through the creation of their hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, “in a matter of weeks, the movement shattered what remained of the notion of a “post-racial” America and reoriented the entire national conversation on anti-Black racism.”[1] These women undertook a huge issue and now are known worldwide for it, but they don’t take their success as a movement for granted. Co-founder Opal Tometi stated “we wanted to create a political space within and amongst our communities for activism that could stand firmly on the shoulders of movements that have come before us, such as the civil rights movement, while innovating on its strategies, practices and approaches.”[2] From this, a clear thankfulness is shown for the struggles endured by women of the past who created opportunities for women today, making it so that women no longer struggle to have their voices heard as a part of a movement; instead women are able to be heard and lead others.

A woman protesting for the Black Lives Matter Movement. (Courtesy of The Huffington Post)

The things that the BLM movement do for women’s rights owe much to the women of the past. Within the Civil Rights Movement, women held many important roles and profoundly impacted the success of this movement in spite of the fact that a time when it was much harder for women to be involved. One specific example of a group that helped propel women’s rights throughout this era was the women of Bennett College within the sit-in protests. Through the actions of the students and faculty of Bennett College, women expanded their participation in organized movements and protests and attained more positions of leadership. As a result, in current day, the women of the Black Lives Matter movement have opportunities as a result of the successes of the women in the past who had to fight many battles to get the world to the place it is today.


Exclusion in the Greensboro Sit-ins

However , the fight for civil rights has not always been receptive to the participation of women and even excluded them from history in some cases  such as the Greensboro sit-ins. Historian Bernice McNair Barnett argues “because of the institutions of slavery and segregation, the names and lives of black women leaders are all but unknown in American society,”[3] Indeed, it is very difficult to find much research regarding women participating as leaders in the Civil Rights Movement especially within the sit-in movement. The first implementation of this form of protesting occurred in the community of Greensboro North Carolina in February of 1960, ushering in a new phase of social upheaval for the Civil Rights movement. The Greensboro sit-in is famously known by the first four young men who participated; little research exists regarding how the protests

The first four boys from NCA&T who started the sit-ins of Greensboro. (Courtesy of http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/6-legacy/freedom-struggle-2.html)

(which lasted for months) continued. In the case of Greensboro, the population of the all-female Bennett College and their staff greatly contributed to the success of the protest but received little credit.


First, the sheer numbers of female participants desensitized society to the idea of women participating in protests. Greensboro was home to two historically black colleges: Bennett, a private all female college, and NCA&T was a public and coed institution. Originally, the publicity for this movement focused on the first four males who participated, but increasingly something vital changed in the protesting that occurred in Greensboro— the women of Bennett College got involved. Linda Beatrice Brown documented the efforts and percentages of participation by Bennett College for the first time years after the protests ended.[4] In fact, during the peak of the sit-ins “as much as 40 percent of Bennett College’s student body was in the local jail, and they accounted for more than half the students being held at that time in the city,”[5] And what’s more is that is that this population of students who were incarcerated were not condemned but rather encouraged by their president Willa B. Player.  Furthermore, historian Maurice Pinard argues that as a highly repressed and discriminated against group, black women experienced an increased desire to change their current situation.[6] All in all, regardless of the reason for participation, the sit-in movement was host to incredibly high numbers of women participating, leading to a growing acceptance of women participation.

Female Leadership at Bennett College

In addition to having incredibly high amounts of female participation, the sit-ins of Greensboro also exemplified how the movement led to the development of women in leadership positions. One of the most notable female leaders in this instance is Willa B. Player, the president of Bennett College during the time of the sit-ins. Player led before the sit-ins since she was the first African American woman to head a four year college in the United States, [7] but her image as a leader only grew through her participation and support of this movement. Player supported her students through her response to their participation. According to historian Deirdre Flowers “Player’s overwhelmingly positive response was unique among local college presidents.”[8] Her response was unique in the sense that she openly supported sit-in involvement from her students.

Player’s positive response worked in two main ways: it showed publically that she accepted and encouraged the actions of her students and allowed for Player to become increasingly involved in the movement herself. For example, Player supported the strategy sessions and even publically attended some. Furthermore, she helped make space on campus

Willa B. Player (Courtesy of http://www.sitins.com/willabplayer.shtml)

for the meetings. Additionally, during the peak of the arrests (which clearly had great impact on the Bennett College population with up to 40% in the local jail at one point), Player refused to force her students back to school and instead helped them by providing course materials and other provisions while they were in jail.[9] Player’s actions here, represent how she used her leadership to promote women participating in the sit-in movement. In contrast to Player, president of NCA&T, Dr. L. C. Dowdy, had a very different reaction to his incarcerated students. Dowdy, rather than supporting his students in their efforts to protest this civil rights issue, ordered them back to campus, lessening the effectiveness of their protest. These differing response show huge contrast in leadership skills and desires for their campus. Player’s support of her students’ participation in these sit-ins shows her desire to promote the involvement of women in organized protests. Altogether, through Player’s actions the role of women participating in protests evolved to include both acceptance of women at the grassroots level and of women in positions of power.


Through the hard work and persistence of the women of the past, the women of the present are able to be the strong independent and powerful women they were made to be. The sit-in movement provided a great starting point for women in protests and as leaders. Specifically, in the Greensboro protests a greater acceptances for female participation and women as leaders grew. Especially as a result of key figures like Willa B. Player. In current day, the women of the Black Lives Matter movement have not only been able to lead a protest for the lives of black people as a whole, they have also been able to develop their movement to include the promotion of women’s rights. Thus showing a massive change from the time of the sit-ins when women struggles to even be accepted as meaningful participants. Through all of these developments, the changes that were initiated through movements like the sit-in movement, developed into a whole new role and image of women in protests that will continue to change the role for the women of tomorrow.






[1] “Black Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter. Accessed April 04, 2016. http://isreview.org/issue/96/black-lives-matter.

[2] “Black Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter.

[3]Bernice McNair Barnett, “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class,” Gender and Society 7 (1993). 162-181

[4] Deidre Flowers, “The Launching of the Student Sit-in Movement: The Role of Black Women at Bennett College.” 52-63.

[5] Flowers, “The Launching of the Student Sit-in Movement.” 52-63.

[6] Maurice Pinard, Jerome Kirk, and Donald von Eschen, “Processes of Recruitment in the  Sit-in Movement”. The Public Opinion Quarterly 33 (1969): 3.

[7] Flowers, “The Launching of the Student Sit-in Movement.” 52-63.

[8] Flowers, “The Launching of the Student Sit-in Movement.” 52-63.

[9] Flowers, “The Launching of the Student Sit-in Movement.” 52-63.