Martin Luther King Jr. dines with students following his 1960 sermon at the University Chapel.
Princeton University Archives
That Was Then: March 1960

The movement to desegregate the South arrived in Princeton on a winter weekend in 1960. On March 12, some 50 undergraduates picketed the Woolworth store on Nassau Street to protest the racial segregation of the five-and-ten chain’s Southern lunch counters. For Malcolm L. Diamond, an assistant professor of religion who joined the picketers, this was “an expression of sympathy and concern for those young Negro men and women in the South who are displaying extraordinary courage and discipline in asserting their human rights.” But others, including the editors of The Daily Princetonian, felt that “there just must be a better way for sincerity to be expressed than in the way it was done Saturday.”

Though not as provocative as the sit-ins that began the previous month, when four black students famously refused to leave Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., the protest on Nassau Street sparked unexpected violence. According to The New York Times, a number of undergraduates and high school students “began jostling and punching the picketers and pulling down their placards,” which bore slogans such as “End Apartheid in the South” and “Jim Crow Must Go.” Police and proctors soon ended the fracas, allowing the protest to continue.

Racial inequality was challenged in a different way the next day, when Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addressed an overflowing crowd in Princeton’s Chapel as part of a conference sponsored by the Student Christian Association. PAW reported that “most of the audience was impressed with his unemotional appeal,” which called on blacks and whites — the “oppressed and the oppressor” — to embrace a “concern for the welfare of others,” rather than succumbing to self-interest.

The invitation that brought him to campus was criticized by some Southern alumni, prompting Dean of the Chapel Ernest Gordon to assert that far from being a revolutionary, King “has prevented a revolution from taking place” through his commitment to nonviolence. As on Nassau Street, freedom of expression prevailed. 

John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.