On February 27, 1960, over 100 African American residents, mostly students at historically-black institutions such as Virginia State University and Peabody High School, challenged the library's practice of restricting black patrons to the basement. The students and their leader Wyatt Tee Walker, entered the library and occupied seats throughout the main reading room. The library responded by closing for the next four days. During that time, white citizens pressed the city council to draft an ant-trespassing ordinance with dire consequences for anyone the city police decided were in violation of the ordinance. If found guilty of trespassing, the civil rights activists would face fines up to $1,000 and could be placed in prison for as long as one year.
Despite the consequences, fifteen African Americans entered the library on March 7, 1960. Of the fifteen, eleven were arrested for occupying a seat in the white sections of the public library. The arrests galvanized the black community, leading to protest meetings and a wave of sit-ins and other demonstrations at theaters, bus stations, and lunch counters. African American residents of Petersburg also defied threats and registered to vote.
After several other protests against the public library, including a large demonstration in July that led to additional arrests and the closure of the public library for four months, the library re-opened in November, with all facilities and services open to residents regardless of race. Protests against discrimination at other Petersburg establishments continued for several years, and included several visits by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other prominent national leaders.
Wyatt T. Walker was the minister of Gillfield Baptist Church and the Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) between 1960 and 1964. During these years, Walker was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s chief strategist. Walker planned a number of events associated with King, including protest marches in Albany and Birmingham. His arrest for using the public library in Petersburg was the first of his seventeen different arrests during the movement.