On January 31, 1960, four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University voiced their complaints about segregated lunch counters in Greensboro. Inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, they questioned how to get the media’s attention and put an end to unfair racial segregation in the southern states.
Just one day later, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond traveled to and sat down at the traditionally white lunch counter within Woolworth Store. Asking for a cup of coffee, they were refused service and asked to leave. The four men remained in their seats until the store closed for the evening.
Inspiring a sit in movement, students from NC A&T and nearby Bennett College traveled to Woolworth and sat in hour long shifts. As time progressed, over 300 people took part within Greensboro alone. The movement began to spread throughout the nation as students in Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia participated in the name of equality.
Time progressed alongside violence. Hot coffee and food were poured on protestors. Peaceful students were spit on, punched, and kicked in their seats. No matter what the battle, the activists remained calm and completed their shifts without hestiation.
With this story in mind, I journeyed into the International Civl Rights Center and Museum. Built in the same facility that used to be Woolworth Store, the center contained the original staircase, mirrors, and bar stools of the 1960s company. Outside of the museum, tourist could walk on the footprints of the ‘Greensboro Four,’ an opportunity that I gladly took advantage of.
Establishing a greater focus, the museum explained the civil rights movement through the lens of historic North Carolina. Using photo journalism and video presentations, the Civil Rights Center highlighted the hard, but important history of America, telling the story of Abram Smith, a Black man who was burned alive in front of laughing white men. We were also presented with a large scale image of Emmett Till’s unrecognizable face in an open casket as requested by his mother. Though uncomfortable, the images re-trace American history and must be shown.
Our experiences at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum provided the opportunity to hear details that aren’t often included in my high school textbook’s paragraph on civil rights. These sit-ins were SO much more than students sitting in an unwelcoming environment.
Prior to participation, activists were often trained to resist reaction when preyed upon. Local students and faculty members would play the role of racists as they yelled derogatory terms and threw food at the students who would soon find themselves in an even more hostile environment. As months progressed, college students faced the pressures of not only participating in sit-ins, but studying for final exams and making travel arrangements for the summer. As worries increased, another group came to save the day. High school students stepped in to relieve college students who were forced to return home during summer break.
On June 25th, the Woolworth store manager invited his black employees to eat at the lunch counter, quietly desegregating the lunch counter and sparking a change across the nation. Though done in what I personally believe to be a cowardly attempt at progression, Woolworth sparked a desegregation movement across the east coast. Four years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, mandating the desegregation of all public arenas.
As I look back on the four courageous men that changed Greensboro and the nation, I am reminded that I have the power to accomplish goals and put an end to injustice.
I am the Greensboro Four.
Photo Credit: Christian Brady