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On February 1, 1960, four young men, students at the historically Black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (NCA&T), went to Woolworth’s in Greensboro and sat down at the lunch counter to order. They waited until closing, never receiving the doughnuts and coffee they came for. The next day, they returned with more students. Again, they waited until closing, without being served. The third day, there were sixty students, the fourth day, 300. Telephone networks spread the word to other cities, mobilizing students across the South in a mass movement to put their bodies on the line to desegregate public accommodations.

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The Greensboro sit-ins were not the first, or even second, actions targeted at lunch counters: these unique demonstrations had already occurred in Chicago, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Miami, Wichita, and Oklahoma City. But the “NCA&T 4” catalyzed a wave that threatened the “the time-honored traditions and customs of the South,” as segregation was characterized by Montgomery, Alabama’s Public Affairs Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, who was in charge of the city’s police force.

Twelve days later, the state of Alabama indicted Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on charges of perjury (felony) and tax evasion, stemming from his roles in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery Improvement Association. It wasn’t the first time King had been targeted by Alabama: in 1956 he had been charged with violating an anti-boycott law during the Montgomery bus boycott, found guilty, and paid $1,000 in fines.

In response to these events, a group of people met at the home of Harry Belafonte to organize what became The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, which placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The copy was written by Bayard Rustin and playwright John Murray and sought to raise money for Dr. King’s defense and bail funds for the lunch counter activists.

The ad contained some inaccuracies regarding the Montgomery city government’s response to student demonstrations, which L. B. Sullivan and other officials, although not named, seized on to bring a libel suit against The New York Times, not only to “correct the record” but also to possibly discourage the press from covering the civil rights movement for fear of being sued as well.

The jury found the newspaper guilty and fined them $500,000 (in 1963 dollars, approximately $5,000,000 today.) The Times appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which upheld the decision, and then to the US Supreme Court. SCOTUS’s decision in the case, The New York Times v. Sullivan, found for the newspaper and became a landmark decision for freedom of speech regarding public officials, setting a standard requiring “actual malice” for statements to be libelous.

Below is the original text of “Heed Their Rising Voices,” annotated with scholarship from JSTOR. As always, these linked resources are free to read and download.

The New York Times
New York, Tuesday March 29, 1960
Heed Their Rising Voices

The growing movement of peaceful mass demonstrations by Negroes is something new in the South, something understandable…. Let Congress heed their rising voices, for they will be heard.”

New York Times editorial Saturday, March 19, 1960.

As the whole world knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro students are engaged in wide-spread non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In their efforts to uphold these guarantees, they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom….

In Orangeburg, South Carolina, when 400 students peacefully sought to buy doughnuts and coffee at lunch counters in the business district, they were forcibly ejected, tear-gassed, soaked to the skin in freezing weather with fire hoses, arrested en masse and herded into an open barbed-wire stockade to stand for hours in the bitter cold.

In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truck-loads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.

In Tallahassee, Atlanta, Nashville, Savannah, Greensboro, Memphis, Richmond, Charlotte, and a host of other cities in the South, young American teen-agers, in face of the entire weight of official state apparatus and police power, have boldly stepped forth as protagonists of democracy. Their courage and amazing restraint have inspired millions and given a new dignity to the cause of freedom.

Small wonder that the Southern violators of the Constitution fear this new, non-violent brand of freedom fighter…even as they fear the upswelling right-to-vote movement. Small wonder that they are determined to destroy the one man who, more than any other, symbolizes the new spirit now sweeping the South—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., world-famous leader of the Montgomery Bus Protest. For it is his doctrine of non-violence which has inspired and guided the students in their widening wave of sit-ins; and it this same Dr. King who founded and is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the organization which is spearheading the surging right-to-vote movement. Under Dr. King’s direction the Leadership Conference conducts Student Workshops and Seminars in the philosophy and technique of non-violent resistance.

Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times-for “speeding.” [sic] “loitering” and similar “offenses.” And now they have charged him with “perjury”—a felony under which they could imprison him for ten years. Obviously, their real purpose is to remove him physically as the leader to whom the students and millions of others—look for guidance and support, and thereby to intimidate all leaders who may rise in the South. Their strategy is to behead this affirmative movement, and thus to demoralize Negro Americans and weaken their will to struggle. The defense of Martin Luther King, spiritual leader of the student sit-in movement, clearly, therefore, is an integral part of the total struggle for freedom in the South.

Decent-minded Americans cannot help but applaud the creative daring of the students and the quiet heroism of Dr. King. But this is one of those moments in the stormy history of Freedom when men and women of good will must do more than applaud the rising-to-glory of others. The America whose good name hangs in the balance before a watchful world, the America whose heritage of Liberty these Southern Upholders of the Constitution are defending, is our America as well as theirs…

We must heed their rising voices—yes—but we must add our own.

We must extend ourselves above and beyond moral support and render the material help so urgently needed by those who are taking the risks, facing jail, and even death in a glorious re-affirmation of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

We urge you to join hands with our fellow Americans in the South by supporting, with your dollars, this Combined Appeal for all three needs- the defense of Martin Luther King-the support of the embattled students- and the struggle for the right-to-vote.

Your Help is Urgently Needed…NOW!!

Stella Adler
Raymond Pace Alexander
Shelly Appleton
Harry Van Arsdale
Harry Belafonte
Julie Belafonte
Dr. Algernon Black
Marc Blitzstein
William Bowe
William Branch
Marlon Brando
Mrs. Ralph Bunche
Diahann Carroll
Dr. Alan Knight Chalmers
Joseph Cohen
Richard Coe
Nat King Cole
Cheryl Crawford
Dorothy Dandridge
Ossie Davis
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Ruby Dee
Harry Duffy
Scotty Eckford
Dr. Philip Elliott
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick
Anthony Franciosa
Mathew Guinan
Lorraine Hansberry
Rev. Donald Harrington
Nat Hentoff
James Hicks
Mary hinkson
Van Heflin
Langston Hughes
Morris Iushewitz
Mahalia Jackson
Paul Jennings
Mordecai Johnson
John Killens
Eartha Kitt
Rabbi Edward Klein
Hope Lange
John Lewis
Viveca Lindfors
David Livingston
William Michaelson
Carl Murphy
Don Murray
John Murray
A. J. Muste
Frederick O’Neal
Peter Ottley
L. Joseph Overton
Albert P. Palmer
Clarence Pickett
Shad Polier
Sidney Poitier
Michael Potoker
A. Philip Randolph
John Raitt
Elmer Rice
Cleveland Robinson
Jackie Robinson
Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt
Bayard Rustin
Robert Ryan
Maureen Stapleton
Frank Silvera
Louis Simon
Hope Stevens
David Sullivan
Julius Sum
George Tabori
Rev. Gardner C. Taylor
Norman Thomas
Kenneth Tynan
Charles White
Shelley Winters
Max Youngstein

We in the south who are struggling daily for dignity and freedom warmly endorse this appeal
Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy
(Montgomery, Ala.)
Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth
(Birmingham, Ala.)
Rev. Kelley Miller Smith
(Nashville, Tenn.)
Rev. W. A. Dennis
(Chattanooga, Tenn.)
Rev. C. K. Steele
(Tallahassee, Fla.)
Rev. Matthew D. McCollom
(Orangeburg, S. C.)
Rev. William Holmes Borders
(Atlanta, Ga.)
Rev. Douglas Moore
(Durham, N. C.)
Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker
(Petersburg, Va.)
Rev. Walter L. Hamilton
(Norfolk, Va.)
I. S. Levy
(Columbia, S. C.)
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.
(Atlanta, Ga.)
Rev. Henry C. Bunton
(Memphis, Tenn.)
Rev. S. S. Seay, Sr.
(Montgomery, Ala.)
Rev. Samuel W. Williams
(Atlanta, Ga.)
Rev. A. L. Davis
(New Orleans, La.)
Mrs. Katie E. Whickham
(New Orleans, La.)
Rev. W. H. Hall
(Hattiesburg, Miss.)
Rev. J. E. Lowery
(Mobile, Ala.)
Rev. T. J. Jemison
(Baton Rouge, La.)

312 West 125th Street, New York 27, N. Y. University 6-1700

Chairmen: A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Garner C. Taylor; Chairmen of Cultural Division: Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier; Treasurer: Nat King Cole; Executive Director: Bayard Rustin; Chairmen of Church Division: Father George B. Ford, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rev. Thomas Kilgore, Jr., Rabbit Edward E. Klein; Chairmen of Labor Division: Morris Iushewitz, Cleveland Robinson.

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