The women are sitting at a counter. One wears a broad-brimmed hat—all are neatly dressed and groomed. The two women on the left look ahead; their signs are on their laps. The women on the right seem to be speaking quietly to one another. They are not eating but are holding signs. They appear quite calm as they sit at the counter of a seemingly empty dining room. The signs feature slogans of protest. Dirty dishes are piled in front of several of the women. Such scenes were common at St. Louis lunch counters in the 1940s and 1950s. To protest policies that refused service to African Americans, groups such as the Citizens’ Civil Rights Committee (CCRC) and St. Louis Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized sit-ins at downtown department store lunch counters. This image is descriptive of the types of nonviolent tactics used by these groups to try to change race relations in America.
Efforts to integrate department and dime store lunch counters began in 1943 with a letter-writing campaign urging the management to end discrimination at lunch counters and hire African American women as sales clerks. By 1944, groups such as CCRC and CORE began distributing leaflets outside department stores and staging demonstrations, sit-ins, and “tests” (to see if they would be served) at lunch counters. The methods used by these groups were always nonviolent, and members remained optimistic despite many setbacks.
Although St. Louis was at the center of the civil rights discussion in 1946, when the National Urban League Conference was held here, progress was difficult. At the conference, President Truman urged St. Louisans not to remain indifferent to acts of discrimination and violence, and to work for understanding among citizens of all religious and racial backgrounds, but it still took several years for the members of CCRC and CORE to see change. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, after many sit-ins at department stores, CORE began to target dime stores and encourage boycotts of national-chain store branches located in African American neighborhoods. In 1954, negotiations were resumed with major downtown department stores, resulting in the integration of the first-floor and basement cafeterias of Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer & Fuller. This was an important victory, but many other establishments still denied equal service to African Americans until the first public accommodations bill was passed in St. Louis in 1961.
Lunch-counter demonstrations were just one part of the growing civil rights movement across the country in the 1940s and 1950s. Citizens of big cities and small towns were fighting to overcome segregation and unequal treatment that had begun shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, southerners created the Black Codes to control the freedoms of former slaves. The codes regulated almost all aspects of the lives of African Americans, from marriage and property rights to when and where they could work and live. Federal officials suspended the Black Codes in 1866, but Jim Crow laws soon replaced them. These laws existed mainly in the south from the late 1800s until the 1960s and imposed racial segregation.