Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Jack Spratt Coffee House Civil Rights Sit-In on May 15, 1943, Chicago.

The Jack Spratt Coffee House in the Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side played an early, unsung role in the civil rights movement.
One afternoon in 1942, after a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) meeting, a few members decided to continue their discussion at a local coffee shop called Jack Spratt's. Upon entering, James Farmer was refused service by the manager for being Negro. Fellow white CORE member Jimmy Robinson calmly but sternly explained to the manager that he violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885. The manager reluctantly served both men. The CORE group returned two days later to further test Jack Spratt's policy. The members were served without incident. They left their payment on the table and exited. Moments later, the manager ran out, threw their money into the street, and screamed, "Take your money and get out! We don't want it!" In reaction to these encounters, CORE decided that Jack Spratt's should be the site of their first nonviolent direct action campaign. As part of their "Action Discipline" method (modified Gandhian methods by which the CORE operated), Farmer sought to negotiate with the manager, first by phone and then via letter. Both attempts were fruitless. 

Thus, on May 15, 1943, at 4:30 PM, Chicago CORE conducted one of American history's earliest civil rights sit-ins. Twenty-eight people entered Jack Spratt's in groups of 2, 3, or 4. Each group had at least one Negro person. In each group, the whites were served while the negroes were refused service. The whites would either pass their food to the negroes in their group or would refuse to eat until everyone in the group was served. Other customers in the coffee house also joined the sit-in.

Eventually, the manager told Jimmy Robinson (speaking only to the white guy) that if the "colored people" would move to the basement, they could be served there. James Farmer replied that they would not eat in the basement. The manager told Robinson (again ignoring Farmer) that they could serve the blacks in the back corner. Again, Farmer politely refused. The manager then called the police.
Jack Spratt Coffee House Exterior. 
Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing, March 28, 1941.
Jack Spratt Coffee House Interior. 
Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing, March 28, 1941.
Unbeknownst to the manager, the group had already informed the police of their plans. Though the police did arrive, they refused to do anything and told the manager that she would either have to serve the patrons or find another acceptable solution as no laws were broken. Everyone ended up being served, albeit hours after they first arrived. Subsequent test visits over the next several weeks confirmed that the CORE sit-in had successfully changed Jack Spratt's policy.

Farmer explains what happened in his own words:
"We went in with a group of about twenty-five—this was a small place that seats thirty or thirty-five comfortably at the counter and in the booths—and occupied just about all of the available seats and waited for service. The woman was in charge again [the manager they had encountered on a previous visit]. She ordered the waitress to serve two whites who were seated at the counter, and she served them. Then she told the blacks, ‘I'm sorry, we can't serve you, you'll have to leave.’ And they, of course, declined to leave and continued to sit there. By this time the other customers who were in there were aware of what was going on and were watching, and most of these were university people, University of Chicago, who were more or less sympathetic with us. And they stopped eating and the two people at the counter she had served and those whites in the booth she had served were not eating. There was no turnover. People were coming in and standing around for a few minutes and walking out. There were no seats available."
Farmer changed how Jack Spratt did business – almost twenty years before the famed lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era focused the nation's attention on racial discrimination.

At the time, the world took little notice. "If we were lucky, there might be a small paragraph on a back page of the Chicago Tribune saying, in effect, that a few nuts and crackpots sat in a restaurant until they were served, or thrown out, or the place closed for the night — whichever came first," James Farmer recalled in his 1985 memoir, "Lay Bare the Heart."

Farmer was an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation with a hunch that the organization's pacifist commitment to turning a cheek in the face of violence could be a weapon with which to combat segregation. The U.S. said it was fighting World War II to save democracy abroad, even as Negroes were denied equal rights at home by Southern laws and Northern customs.

To test his idea, Farmer and 27 others, many of whom lived around the University of Chicago campus, went to the nearby Jack Spratt Coffee House, known to be unfriendly to Negroes. As expected, whites were served, and Negros were not. All rejected the management's proposal that they dine in the basement. The police refused to remove Farmer and his friends, saying they hadn't broken any Illinois laws. Jack Spratt quietly dropped its anti-Negro policies afterward.

Eighteen years later, a group of college students struggling to desegregate a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., sought advice from CORE, born during the civil rights campaign on 47th Street. In the South in 1960, police and whites were hardly the nonpartisan bystanders their Chicago counterparts had been. Food was dumped on protesters, who were also beaten and arrested.

But the students persevered, and their tactics quickly spread to other cities. In August, student leaders came to Chicago to explain their motivation to an audience at the Corpus Christi Center in the South Side ghetto.

"Down there, you felt all alone," said Ezell Blair, who participated in one of the first Greensboro sit-ins. "You feel very timid. But it is just about the time that you think you are going to break that you say to yourself, 'No, I'll stay right here.'"

Between the time of the Chicago sit-in and the one in Greensboro, Negroes won a milestone victory with 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that separate schools for whites and Negroes were unconstitutional. But with many states stalling on actually desegregating, Negroes were frustrated with the lawsuit route to equality. Farmer and his Chicago friends had come to that conclusion long before.

Along with their campaign to desegregate restaurants, CORE members in 1949 confronted White City Roller Skating Rink, a remnant of the famous 63rd Street amusement park, which was off-limits to Negroes. After being repeatedly turned away — always with the explanation that there was a private party — Farmer filed complaints against several employees. But at the trial, an assistant state's attorney entered the tank. In summation, he said: "We have failed to prove that they discriminated, and as a prosecutor for the state, I can make but one recommendation, namely that you find these defendants from the White City Roller Skating Rink not guilty." The judge reluctantly complied.

In the aftermath of the North Carolina sit-ins, CORE's Chicago experience and the eagerness of Southern students to combat Jim Crow came together with the civil rights movement's adoption of Farmer's brainchild: nonviolent resistance. The tactic gained a national audience during the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott thanks to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "No longer did we have to explain nonviolence to people," Farmer said. "Thanks to Martin Luther King, it was a household word."

In 1961, with Farmer as its director, CORE sent Freedom Riders to integrate buses in Dixie. Again, there was violence and arrests. Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted the Freedom Rides halted. As it often did during this time, the Tribune attributed the demand for change to subversives with a headline "Freedom Rides Traced To Red Inspired Plot." But it also reported how volunteers from Illinois were screened according to the protocol set during the early Chicago sit-ins. "We look for persons who sincerely want to improve race relations — persons who want to abide by dictates of passive resistance rather than those who want to fight back," a CORE recruiter told a Trib reporter.
James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
A federal judge in Alabama ordered the Freedom Rides and attendant violence to stop. "If there are any more occurrences of this sort of thing, I am going to put some Klansmen, city officials, policemen, and Negro preachers in the penitentiary," the judge said, according to the Trib's account. Yet the Freedom Riders kept coming, and in September, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to segregated transportation.

In the years that followed, Farmer split with CORE, which had tilted toward Negro separatism and militant philosophy incompatible with Farmer's pacifism. "Negroes and whites have contributed too much to CORE for it to degenerate like this," he told the Tribune in 1978.

He briefly joined the Nixon administration in 1969. Farmer, who, with King, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, and John Lewis, was considered a significant force in the civil rights movement — had been largely forgotten when President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, a year before he died.

He left a bittersweet evaluation of the faith that inspired that sit-in on 47th Street.

"We too, in the early years of CORE, believed that truth alone, the transparent justice of our demands, would convert the segregationists," he wrote in 1965 in "Freedom — When?" "We were very young and idealistic."

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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