I want you to imagine that you’re a freshman in college (if you already are one, this exercise will prove quite easy). I want you to imagine walking into your local Starbucks. You have to sit at a dingy, broken down counter, your drinks are always served to you late, and they taste as if they were made with second hand materials. The staff is surly and mean to you, but you know that’s not the norm: you can see that the other half of the college populace gets to eat at the fancy counter in the front. Their food is delicious, hot and always on time, and the staff always serves them with a smile. Now I want you to stop imagining, because that was a reality for African Americans in the 60s. However, the Greensboro Four weren’t content to let sleeping dogs lie and preserve the status quo. They saw injustice, and immediately set out to right a historic wrong. The Greensboro sit-in was not only one of the most important events in Greensboro’s history, but it was also one of the most important events in the history of the civil rights movement. It struck a blow for civil rights while simultaneously setting the stage for similar sit-ins all around the country.
Allow me to set the stage: February 1st, 1960. Four young black college students sit down at a Woolworth and ask to be served coffee. At first they’re met with comical stares and indifference, and are promptly ignored. But the four men are not deterred from their goal. Despite the mounting opposition and jeers from both the staff and the customers, the men refuse to leave until they are served. And so, they wait. And they wait. And they wait some more. Eventually, closing time comes and the men have not yet been served. As they’re shuffling towards the exit, the manager breathes a sigh of relief. “The whole day, those four negroes wasted seats that could go to paying customers,” he thinks to himself, “Surely after being ignored all day, they won’t be back tomorrow.” But he would be wrong. They would be back, each and every day until justice was finally served. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. To fully appreciate the story, we have to begin with our protagonists.
Our story truly begins a few days earlier with the Greensboro Four (as they would soon be collectively known) debating on the best course of action. The quartet consisted of Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond, and they had a few things in common: they were young black college students attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Although they all came from different backgrounds, they united under one common goal: Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent practices, they sought to change the racist and discriminatory policies at the local Woolworth. Although they were optimistic that their plan would succeed, they were still mired in the reality of the times they lived in. They knew that trying to affect change could be fatal. Every day the civil rights movement was becoming more dangerous and many young black men had died for doing much less than this. However, they knew that the reward outweighed the risks. These young men were willing to go to any length to help make Martin Luther King Jr’s dream a reality. They each sought a utopia, one where people wouldn’t be discriminated on for something as simple as the color of their skin. And to that end, they devised a plan. The plan was simplistic, yet nonetheless effective: the four men would occupy seats at the Woolworth, ask to be served, and when they were inevitably denied service, they would not leave. They would repeat this process day in and day out for as long as it would take. Their thinking was that, if they could disrupt the working hours and the customers enough, the damage to Woolworth profits would cause them to desegregate out of necessity (to keep the business afloat). It was a long shot, one that could have taken months or even years to accomplish, but the four heroes set out nonetheless. And on February 1st, they finally put the first part of their plan into action.
The first day was tough going, but the movement soon caught steam. The very next day, the Greensboro Four were joined by more than twenty fellow black students, all eager to affect long lasting change. But despite the increased numbers, the conditions were still harsh. The students were heckled by the white students, and still denied service by the staff. However, keeping in line with the non-violent ideals they were championing, they ignored the jeers of the crowd by reading books and studying. And from that point on, the demonstration only gained momentum. A newspaper reporter and a TV reporter both covered the protest, allowing for more people to hear about the protest. On the third day, 60 people joined the protest. Despite the growing number of protesters joining the sit-in, Woolworth maintained that they would retain their segregated policy. However, they wouldn’t last long.
On the fourth day, 300 people joined the sit-in (Wolff). And with that, the sit-in was officially underway. The next weeks and months would see similar sit-ins occurring in other towns, and in the Woolworth, the students continued their original sit-in. In an effort to keep the protest going, the students organized schedules. People would occupy the counters while others went to class and slept, so that the protest would not be stopped by the student’s obligations. They knew that, in order to make lasting progress, they’d have to stick it out. But in the end, their non-violent methods would prove effect. Seeing the efforts of the students, the civil right’s movement leaders (in conjunction with the Greensboro Four) put out a boycott on the Woolworth chain of business. This boycott was wildly effective, as it dropped sales at Woolworth’s nationwide by one third (Weatherford). Seeing how quickly this boycott quashed their profits, the higher ups realized they would have to end their segregation policy. And with that realization, a victory had been won for civil rights. On July 25th, 1960, as a symbolic gesture to the protesters, the black employees at the Greensboro’s Woolworth were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter (Wolff). And finally, on July 26th, 1960, every Woolworth in the country was desegregated, allowing for both whites and blacks to be served at the counters. And with that, the day had finally been won, the goal accomplished, and a decisive battle for civil rights had ended fortuitously.
But what of the Greensboro Four, the originators of the protest? Surely their story doesn’t end here. Yes, they became symbols of the civil rights movement, but few people know they continued to make strides for diversity long after the Greensboro Sit-in was over. Joseph McNeil, for example, would eventually join the U.S. Air Force. He would go on to spend six years as an officer, and eventually make the rank of captain. During his time in the Air Force, he implemented a series of diversity programs, which would help to change the institution for the better. (Channing, Cerese) Franklin McCain would remain in Charlotte, Franklin, and become a member of many different boards (the board of education, the school board, etc.). By doing this, he has been able to directly affect change in the area, for the greater good (Channing, Cerese). Ezell Blair Jr. would go on to change his name to Jibreel Khazan after joining the New England Islamic Center in 1968. He currently works with people with disabilities in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Schlosser). He is also involved in the AFL/CIO Trade Council in Boston, in an effort to bring further equality and justice to this world(Schlosser). David Richmond, the final member of the initial four, would eventually move back to Greensboro to care for his ill parents. Although he was often labeled as a troublemaker or an instigator for his actions in 1960, nonetheless he was awarded the Levi Coffin Award by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. (Channing, Cerese) He received this award for “leadership in human rights, human relations, and human resources development in Greensboro.” All four of these men came with one simple goal: to make the world a better place. And their individual stories prove that anyone can improve the world, all they need is dedication.
Beyond the initial success that they had in desegregating Woolworth, the Greensboro Four also inspired other similar protests. Within the first week of the Greensboro sit-in, other students in North Carolinian towns were moved to action. Similar demonstrations were held in Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte. The movement soon spread out of solely North Carolina to other southern towns such as Lexington, Kentucky, Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville Tennessee. The movement was helped largely in part by sympathetic newspapers and TV coverage. Around the time of the initial sit-in, newspapers wrote glowing articles praising the student’s courage and describing the growth of the movement. Although the older customers in the Woolworth weren’t supportive, it was apparent that everyone else was finally ready for change. The non-violent part of the Four’s original sit-in was probably what helped it it to be so long lasting. If they had initially gone with a message of anger, or demanded immediate change, they would not have won as much support as they did. Trying to bring about change via the sword is tempting and often instantaneous, but to truly test your faith in an ideal, the path of non-violence is best. It sends a message: I am willing to risk life and limb to prove that I am right.
This story must be told, again and again, until everyone knows it. It’s both a shining example of what anyone can do with a goal, some bravery, and dedication, and an example of how even the smallest things matter. By focusing their ambitions towards an important effort, the Greensboro Four were able to make lasting change and have their name’s remembered forever. Furthermore, they were able to inspire others to take similar steps towards a better future for everyone. The tale of the Greensboro sit-in stands as an inspirational tale: everyone can do something important. All it takes is courage and dedication.
Channing, Steven and Cerese, Rebecca. FEBRUARY ONE. Web. 18 Mar. 2011.
Weatherford, Carole Boston., and Jerome Lagarrigue. Freedom on the Menu
Wolff, Miles. How It All Began
Frazier, Thomas R. Readings in African-American History. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, c2001. Print.
Schlosser, Jim. “Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of a Civil Rights Movement : Key Players.” Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of a Civil Rights Movement : Home. News-Record, 1 Feb. 1998. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
Chafe, William Henry. Civilities and Civil Rights : Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1980. Print.
About The Author
Jordan Hale is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taken a special interest in this case because his grandmother was involved in the Greensboro sit-ins. He hopes that you truly cared about the plight of the Greensboro Four.