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c. 1960

The extreme training that prepared protesters for civil rights sit-ins

Students were willingly subjected to humiliation and abuse. How to pass the course? Remain cool.

Have you ever had smoke blown in your face? Been whacked round the head by a newspaper? If you were taking part in a civil rights protest in 1960, these were very real threats for which you needed to be completely prepared. 

Lunch counter sit-in volunteers getting preliminary training in what to expect on the firing line.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


And it is precisely that preparation you see here, in this remarkable set of pictures taken in Petersburg, Virginia, by LIFE photographer Howard Sochurek. The article — Sit-Ins’ Successful Strategy — described the sit-in as an ‘economic weapon’. But it was the protesters who experienced the attacks.

African-American student Virginius B. Thornton receiving tolerance training before picketing.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

‘It takes a tough inner fiber neither to flinch nor retaliate when, occasionally, hooligans pick on the sitters-in to discourage them or to provoke them into some violent act’ was the way LIFE described the situation. In an attempt to tackle that situation head on, Petersburg students attended an extra-curricular course given the working title “Social Drama.”

Tolerance training being performed on Sit-In demonstrators. Virginius Thornton has smoke blown into his face by David Gunter on left (NAACP student advisor) and Leroy Hill on right.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Attendees at Social Drama were willingly subjected to humiliation and abuse: smoke-blowing, hair-pulling, chair-jostling, coffee-spilling, being hit with a newspaper, and being cursed at. How to pass the course? Remain cool. Get mad, and you flunked.

Civil Right activist Volunteers receive tolerance training and other forms of harassment to prepare for sit-in protests which will take place at bus stations and restaurants.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

By the fall of 1960, sit-ins had taken place in more than 80 cities across the American South. It was, in the words of Martin Luther King, an ‘electrifying movement’ — even with the smoke.

Civil Rights picket signs prepared for a lunch counter protest. Organizing inside the church of African American integration group led by Rev. Wyatt T. Walker.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A stand-up sit-in being conducted by African American students at lunch counter.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Leader of African American integration group, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A view of African-American integrationists attending a meeting.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
African Americans connected with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and NAACP picketing Grants and its lunch counter.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
African Americans on the picket line, protesting treatment at lunch counter.
Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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