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The Kress Sit-Ins • February 1960

Photo by Harold Moore
© The (Durham) Herald-Sun
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at White Rock Baptist Church, Feb.16, 1960, before a crowd estimated at 1,200. King had scheduled a return visit to Durham on April 4, 1968, but changed plans to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He was assassinated that evening on the balcony
of the Lorraine Motel, now part of the National
Civil Rights Museum.

IIn early February 1960, Bill Sharpe was one of 11 divinity students at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been invited in response to the Greensboro sit-ins.

“Most of us on the second row that night were struggling internally to unite our youthful idealism with the reality of what was happening in our society,” writes Sharpe in his essay, “The Kress Sit-ins.”

A third-year student and chair of the social action committee, Sharpe continues, “Until recently, we had been a part of the unfair treatment that our black brothers and sisters had known all of their lives. We knew, almost to a man, that our home congregations would not have understood what brought us there.”

Flier circa 1960 from boycott of downtown Durham businesses in the call to end segregation.

After hearing King, five of the 11 divinity students at the White Rock service decided to go the next morning to S.H. Kress & Co., a retail store in downtown Durham. They took seats at the lunch counter, and then gave them up to what Sharpe described as “the bravest persons I have ever known, mostly students from N.C. Central University (then named N.C. College).

“The hatred that we felt from the white customers gave us some idea [of what those students must have been feeling] because with our behavior we had crossed the line of acceptable behavior…. The arrests that were made that day brought more repercussions than any of us might have imagined. Confused students were not sure exactly what had to be done to change what we perceived as unfair attitudes and hardened hearts, but we knew something had to happen.”

For more information about Martin Luther King Jr.'s visits to Durham, visit the Durham County Public Library Civil Rights Heritage Project.