53 years ago today, four N. C. A&T students walked in and sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N. C. A group of people sitting down at the lunch counter wasn’t a big deal, it happened every day. But, these four young men, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair (now Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond, were African-American and African-Americans were not served at this particular lunch counter. If a black person wanted to eat at Woolworth’s, they went to the counter in the basement that served African-Americans. They did not sit down at the main counter upstairs, a situation that prevailed in restaurants across the south in those days. But, these four 17 year old freshmen did just that, politely asking to be served. Eventually the manager asked them to leave, but they didn’t; they stayed on those stools until closing time. The next morning, the four, later known as the Greensboro Four, were back along with 20 of their peers, including students from Bennett College (a historically black women’s college). On the third day, 60 students showed up. By the fourth day, the crowd had grown to more than 300 people and 63 of the 66 seats at the lunch counter occupied by young African-Americans with final three seats taken by waitresses. At first, Woolworth’s stood by their policy, stating they would abide by local custom and keep the counter segregated. But, after 6 months of bad sales and worse publicity, they relented and desegregated it. The actions of these four young men started a chain reaction, with sit-ins happening all over the south which led to the desegregation of not just lunch counters, but other places as well. In May of 1960, Nashville students achieved citywide desegregation. The sit-ins also led the SCLC to fund a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh N. C. for delegates from the sit-in centers, 19 northern colleges and groups like CORE, and the SDS . Out of this conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed. To say the sit-ins changed the face of the civil rights movement is an understatement. Sometimes, I wonder if it would have nearly as successful if those four college students hadn’t walked into Woolworth’s that day.
I grew up in Greensboro and, for North Carolina, it’s a pretty progressive town. I’m not sure why, though. It could be because this area was originally settled by Quakers, a group known for their progressiveness. It could be because it’s always been a blue-collar town, with an economy based on manufacturing (textiles and tobacco) and transportation (two major interstates, rail and air transport centers) and because of that, populist messages tend to resonate here. It could be the diversity of the population (49% white, 39% African-American, 7.9% Hispanic, etc.). Who knows. But Greensboro has a split personality when it comes to race and civil rights. Yes, it was here that sit-ins brought new attention to the civil rights movement. But, it was also here that, in 1979, a group of Nazis and Klansmen shot and killed 5 protesters in what is known as the Greensboro Massacre. Here in the United States, we’ve come a long way regarding equality. Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past (for African-Americans. LGBT folks are a different story). Black people are welcome in any establishment in the city and their employment opportunities are greatly increased. But, 1 in 5 people in this town live below the poverty line and a disproportionate amount of them are black. Several states are seeking to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying that it’s unconstitutional. The President of the United States is an African-American and has been subjected to more vitriol than any president in recent memory. The intransigence that seems to be a part of American (especially southern) DNA, can be discouraging. When it is, reading about what happened in 1960 lifts my spirits. If we could make those changes, the ones facing us today aren’t so bad. At least I hope that’s the case.