On a hot August day in 1958, seven-year-old Ayanna Najuma and her friends walked into Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order food, but the waitresses ignored them. The kids sat there for hours.
No one would wait on Ayanna and her friends for one reason: They were African-American. This was one of many restaurants in the South that refused to serve black people at the time.
Ayanna and the 12 other kids knew they wouldn’t be served. But they actually weren’t there to eat. They were there to stand up against injustice (unfair treatment). They were working to end segregation—the practice of keeping black people separate from white people. With some help from adults, the kids held a protest called a sit-in. “We said to each other, ‘We want a change. Why wait? Let’s do it now,’” Ayanna recalls.
Growing up, Ayanna was used to the unjust treatment of black people. Racism has a long history in the U.S., beginning with slavery. Even after slavery was banned in the U.S. in 1865, other forms of racism continued. African-Americans were still treated cruelly. One example of this mistreatment was segregation. Such forms of mistreatment were common, and legal, in many states, especially in the South.
For kids like Ayanna, life with segregation was all they knew. But in 1958, while on a bus trip to New York City, Ayanna and her friends noticed that life was different for black people in the North. There were no signs that designated (set apart for a specific purpose) water fountains “For Whites Only.” Black people and white people ate at the same restaurants and lived in the same neighborhoods.
The kids wanted Oklahoma City to be more like New York City, so they decided to do something about it. Many Americans took similar actions against racism in the 1950s and 1960s. These protests were a big part of what became known as the civil rights movement.
On the first day of the sit-in, Ayanna and the other kids sat at the lunch counter until the restaurant closed for the night. No one ever took their order. So the kids went back the next day. That’s when the situation grew tense. Some white customers yelled at the kids, and others threw ketchup on them. Through it all, the kids remained peaceful and polite.
During the third day of their sit-in, the kids got good news. The owners of the store agreed to start serving black customers at the lunch counter. “It was a big deal,” Ayanna remembers. “It was a slam dunk to be able to sit there and have a hamburger and Coke.”
Ayanna and her friends weren’t done, though. For six years, they took part in sit-ins at other restaurants in Oklahoma. One by one, many of the restaurants became integrated (including people of all races). Their last sit-in took place in 1964. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The law made segregation illegal throughout the U.S. Ayanna and the other kids were proud to do their part to bring about change in their hometown—and their nation.
“Even though I was little, my voice was just as important as everyone else’s voice,” Ayanna says.