Glenda Gilmore, Jan Whitaker, Mayra Annette McQuirter, and other historians have shown that female students at Howard University, in coordination with local black leaders in Washington, led some of the very first sit-ins in the South. Between 1942 and 1944, Ruth Powell protested segregated downtown restaurants in Washington by occupying seats at diners that refused to serve black customers. Other students joined Powell, and in 1944, she and two other Howard students were arrested. Law student Pauli Murray led the Howard branch of the NAACP in a legal fight, challenging the arrest of the students in court.
Although the 1942-44 protests did not succeed in eliminating segregated lunch counters in the nation's capitol, Howard students continued their protests. They also researched the laws of the city and found that a law passed during Reconstruction banned racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. Led by none other than the iconic civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell (at age 86), African Americans attempted to be served at the restaurant in 1950. After they were denied service, they filed suit against the chain. After three years and with the assistance of the National Lawyers Guild, the case made its way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Washington D.C. Restaurant Association raised money to defend Thompson's and maintain segregation.
In the 1953 case District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., the Supreme Court affirmed that the anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 were valid. Although lunch counters and restaurants continued to practice segregation, the court victory gave Howard students and the Washington Branch of the NAACP the legal precedent to bring suit against restaurants and other places that drew the color line.
The National Park Service provides this background information: Local integration laws dating back to 1872 and 1873 had disappeared in the 1890s when the District Code was written. The laws had required all eating-place proprietors to serve any respectable, well-behaved person regardless of color, or face a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of their license. [Mary Church] Terrell launched a campaign to reinstate these anti-discrimination laws. On February 28, 1950, she and several colleagues entered segregated Thompson Restaurant. When they were refused service, they promptly filed a lawsuit. In the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Terrell targeted other restaurants, this time using tactics such as boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. Finally, on June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.1