More than 50 years after Rep. John Lewis, then a young college student, organized student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee, a program at the National Museum of American History is continuing to bring that experience to life for its visitors.
Dubbed “Join the Student Sit-Ins,” the program invites museumgoers to take part in a nonviolent training session and practice those skills by participating in a mock sit-in. The backdrop is an actual section of a once “whites-only” lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., where four African-American college freshmen sat down on Feb. 1, 1960, and remained in their seats after they were denied service. That action inspired similar protests across the country.
After seeing the program twice, including once at the House page school, Lewis said he encourages Members of Congress and Congressional staffers to stop by the museum and participate. The Georgia Democrat said the experience is particularly valuable for younger individuals, who see everything in the experience as alien, from the
15-cent apple pie on the Woolworth’s menu to the concept of not being able to sit with friends of a different skin color.
“They were not even born — they were not even a dream,” said Lewis, who served as a speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. “It’s one of the most effective ways to educate, inform, sensitize. ... You make it real.”
The performance is part of the National Museum of American History’s “Historic Theatre” program, where characters directly interact with audience members and encourage their participation. The 20-minute sit-in program, for example, is led by a person portraying an African-American student from 1960 who coaches the audience on nonviolent tactics and teaches a freedom song while weaving in a discussion about segregation.
“We want to use the history and use the drama of the stories to get visitors talking,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the theater program. “Whereas our exhibits do a great job of telling stories and using objects to draw people into the history and so forth, they may not be as good at dealing with conflict and different points of view.”
Wilson said the programs are also a way to make history personal. For William Holliday of Williamston, N.C., that connection came after he was one of four people instructed to sit on a bar stool and withstand the menacing looks of the rest of the audience during a mock sit-in. A member of the U.S. Army, Holliday said he couldn’t imagine not being able to walk into a restaurant and sit next to those who fought alongside him because of their skin color.
“I’m glad that things have progressed now,” Holliday said.
Offered since the museum reopened in November 2008, the program’s engaging acting and singing, as well as its location near the main entrance, typically draw a large audience.