The "sixties" were born Feb. 1, 1960, 50 years ago this week, when four African-American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, the mythology of the '60s has dominated the idea of youthful activism.
Of the three big events of the early civil rights movement -- the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins -- the sit-ins have always been the least understood yet the most important for today's young activists.
We forget how troubled the civil rights movement was in January 1960. Fewer than one in 100 black students in the South attended an integrated school. Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to build on the bus boycott victory. Many worried that the civil rights movement had ground to a halt. Greensboro changed everything.
In the time before Twitter, the rapid spread of the sit-ins was shocking. They spread to more than 70 cities and towns in eight weeks. By summer, more than 50,000 people had taken part in one.
At the time, this was not just the largest black protest against segregation ever; it was the largest outburst of civil disobedience in American history. The sit-ins rewrote the rules of protest. Everyone participated; everyone was in equal danger. And they went viral because they were easy to copy.
Most important, the sit-ins were designed to highlight the immorality of segregation by forcing Southern policemen to arrest polite, well-dressed college students sitting quietly just trying to order a shake or a burger.
To their contemporaries, college students seemed the unlikeliest group to revive the civil rights movement. Just three years earlier, E. Franklin Frazier, the eminent black sociologist, had condemned them for believing that "money and conspicuous consumption are more important than knowledge." Frazier failed to see how the comfort of postwar affluence and popular culture bred agitation and activism as easily as it did indifference and apathy.
Black elders such as King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins tried to control the sit-ins by co-opting the students as junior partners. The students instead formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC produced a generation of black leaders, including John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael and Marion Barry.
SNCC took the movement to the most violent reaches of the Deep South. Its tactics -- the courting of arrests and the willingness to risk beatings -- forced the confrontation with racial segregation that compelled congressional intervention. The great milestones of the movement -- the freedom rides, Freedom Summer, Selma, Birmingham -- grew from sit-ins.
Fifty years later, my students tend to see SNCC's members as a "greatest generation" of activists whose achievements they cannot equal. But I remind them of what they have in common with the SNCC generation. Both have been condemned by adults for their materialism, pop culture and assumed political apathy. Both grew up in a period of relative prosperity that left them comfortable but also unsatisfied. Both came of age when new forms of communication -- TV then, the Internet now -- unsettled politics.
There are many lessons from the sit-ins relevant to the lives of today's young people. The most important lesson is to stop looking at the '60s as the manual for modern activism. What made the sit-ins so powerful is how they broke away from the prevailing wisdom to create a new model for change. Look forward, not back, I tell them. It's not your parents' movement anymore.
Lewis is the author of "The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation."McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE