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1960: Sitting down to take a stand: when four students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., 50 years ago, they helped re-ignite the civil rights movement.





It was shortly after four in the afternoon when four college freshmen entered the Woolworth's store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They purchased a few small items--school supplies, toothpaste--and were careful to keep their receipts. Then they sat down at the store's lunch counter and ordered coffee.

"I'm sorry," said the waitress. "We don't serve Negroes here."

"I beg to differ," said one of the students. He pointed out that the store had just served them--and accepted their money--at a counter just a few feet away. They had the receipts to prove it.

A black woman working at the lunch counter scolded the students for trying to stir up trouble, and the store manager asked them to leave. But the four young men sat quietly at the lunch counter until the store closed at 5:30.

Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, now known as the "Greensboro Four," were all students at North Carolina A&T (Agricultural and Technical) College, a black college in Greensboro. They were teenagers, barely out of high school. But on that Monday afternoon, Feb. 1, 1960, they started a movement that changed America.


The Greensboro sit-in 50 years ago, and those that followed, ignited a decade of civil rights protests in the U.S. It was a departure from the approach of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the leading civil fights group at the time, which focused on challenging segregation in the courts, a process that could take years. The sit-ins showed that Americans, and young people in particular, could protest against segregation directly and have a real impact. (They also served as a model for later activism, such as the women's movement and student protests against the Vietnam War.)

"The civil rights movement would have moved much slower, would have accomplished far fewer victories if you had not had those student sit-ins and the entry into the movement of all this young energy," says Aldon Morris, author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

Six years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights movement seemed to have stalled. In Brown, the Court had ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were unconstitutional, making segregation in public schools illegal. But some states virtually ignored the ruling, especially in the South where "Jim Crow" laws and customs often prevailed, and public facilities like hospitals and parks remained segregated, with water fountains and restrooms often designated "White" or "Colored." In many places, blacks could not eat in the same restaurants as whites.

Earlier sit-ins in the Midwest and the South had, in some cases, led to the integration of local lunch counters. But they were mostly isolated incidents that hadn't gained momentum. The Greensboro sit-ins happened at just the right time and place, according to William Chafe, author of Civilities and Civil Rights, a history of civil rights in Greensboro.

"There was growing impatience within the black community over the absence of any significant progress on desegregation after Brown, both in Greensboro and throughout the country," says Chafe. "It was like pent-up pressure ready to burst at the appropriate moment--and February 1st provided that moment."

But the four A&T students didn't go to Woolworth's on a whim. They'd been discussing it in their dorm rooms for months: Why was it that a store could cheerfully accept their money at one counter then refuse to serve them at another?


Before heading to Woolworth's, the students rehearsed how they would act and what they would say. When they sat down at the lunch counter, they fully expected to be arrested--or worse.

"I felt that this could be the last day of my life" recalls Franklin McCain, now 67 and living in Charlotte, North Carolina. "But I thought that it was well worth it. Because to continue to live the way we had been living--I questioned that. It's an incomplete life. I'd made up my mind that we absolutely had no choice."

When it came to serving blacks at its lunch counters, the policy of the E W. Woolworth Company, based in New York City, was to "abide by local custom." In the North, blacks sat alongside whites at Woolworth's, but not in the South.

At the time, Woolworth's was one of the world's largest retailers, and the store in downtown Greensboro was one of its most profitable. It was a typical "five and dime" that sold all kinds of merchandise for less than a dollar, and its lunch counter served about 2,000 meals a day. Curly Harris, the manager, didn't want any disruptions that would scare away customers. When the four black men sitting at the lunch counter refused to leave, Harris told his staff, "Ignore them. Just let them sit."

The four returned the next morning, along with two more A&T students, and took seats at the lunch counter. Some opened textbooks and studied, and occasionally they tried to order something. Otherwise, they were silent. By the end of the week, students from A&T and Bennett, a black women's college in Greensboro, occupied all 66 seats at the Woolworth's counter. A few white students joined in. Soon, the sit-in spread to S.H. Kress, another variety store down the street.


Some whites in Greensboro supported the sit-ins, but others, including some Ku Klux Klan members, resisted, taunting demonstrators with racial epithets and taking seats at the Woolworth's counter to keep blacks from sitting there. On the Saturday after the sit-ins began, nearly 1,000 people crowded around the lunch counter before a bomb threat prompted the manager to close the store.

That weekend, a truce was called: The sit-ins were suspended, and Woolworth's and Kress's temporarily closed their lunch counters. Greensboro's mayor formed a negotiating committee of local businessmen.


During earlier sit-ins in other cities, newspapers had buried the stories in the back pages or didn't cover them at all. But the Greensboro Record ran the story on the front page of its local-news section. Reporters from other news organizations began arriving, and on February 3, The New York Times ran the first of many articles about the sit-ins. Media coverage was one reason that the movement spread so quickly.

While the Greensboro sit-ins were suspended, the movement took off in other cities. Within days after the four students first sat down at Woolworth's, sit-ins were taking place in towns across North Carolina. Students in Nashville, Tennessee, held sit-ins at a number of stores. In New York, demonstrators picketed Woolworth's stores in support of the students in North Carolina. Word of the sit-ins spread through a network of black colleges and groups like CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.), led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the next few months, 50,000 demonstrators would sit in at lunch counters in a hundred Southern cities. King encouraged the students in their nonviolent campaign, telling them to prepare to be arrested. (In October, King was jailed along with dozens of students during a sit-in at Rich's department store in Atlanta.)

In Greensboro, the sit-ins resumed in April after the mayor's committee failed to come up with a solution. Students began picketing Woolworth's and Kress's, and local civil rights leaders urged blacks to boycott downtown businesses.

Six months after the sit-ins began, Harris, the manager of the Greensboro Woolworth's, finally relented: The sit-ins had already cost him $150,000 in lost business. On July 25, 1960, the lunch counter served its first black customers four Woolworth's employees who worked in the store's kitchen.

In some cities, police used tear gas or fire hoses on demonstrators. In Jacksonville, Florida, whites beat sit-in participants with ax handles and baseball bats. But by the end of the year, lunch counters were integrated in many cities across the South.

The civil rights protests didn't end with a cup of coffee at Woolworth's. In 1963, another series of demonstrations in Greensboro--led by an A&T student named Jesse Jackson--targeted movie theaters and cafeterias, as well as discriminatory hiring practices. That same year, police in Birmingham, Alabama, responded violently to marches and sit-ins led by King. In both Greensboro and Birmingham, the jails overflowed with black students.

On June 11, 1963, President John E Kennedy, in a live television address from the Oval Office, called for legislation that would give "all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public--hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments."


Sit-ins and marches, along with Kennedy's assassination in 1963, helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public facilities and employment. It was signed into law by Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in July 1964.

Today, there is no longer a Woolworth's store in downtown Greensboro--the company closed the last of its U.S. stores in 1997. But on February 1, the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins, the building that once housed the Greensboro store will reopen as the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

McCain, who plans to attend the opening, says he'll never forget how he felt on Feb. 1, 1960, at age 17.

"I've never had a feeling like that in my life--just sitting on a stool," he says. "It was the most relieving, and the most cleansing feeling that I ever felt--the kind of feeling that I'll never have in my life again."





Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.



President Harry Truman signs executive orders integrating the military and banning racial discrimination in federal employment.


The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregated schools are unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.



Rosa Parks is arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, setting off a yearlong bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr.



Federal and National Guard troops intervene on behalf of nine black students blocked from entering all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.


While testing new Laws outlawing segregation in restaurants and interstate bus terminals, "Freedom Riders" are attacked by angry mobs.



More than 200,000 people participate in the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gives his "I Have a Dream" speech.


President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in public places and employment.



The Voting Rights Act outlaws Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other obstacles to black voter registration.


List ways that people protest.

* Which forms of protest do you think are most effective, and why? (Examples include boycotts and marches.)

* Identify examples of protests in American history (such as the Boston Tea Party and war protests). What did protesters hope to gain? Did they achieve their goals? Why or why not?

* What are the pros and cons of nonviolent protests? Why were they an integral part of the civil rights movement? What was Mohandas Gandih's influence?

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted equal, protection under the Law to blacks. Why then was segregation the Law in many cities and states for almost 100 years after? (Refer to Plessy v. Ferguson.)


Write a Letter to the Greensboro Four discussing how race relations and civil rights have changed in the U.S. since the Greensboro sit-ins. Have all the goals of the civil rights movement been met? Why or why not?


Defend or refute: Now that we have a black President, it's clear that racism is no longer an issue in the U.S.


What were the goals of the Greensboro sit-ins, and why do you think the protest was successful?

How important do you think media coverage was to the success of the sit-ins around the U.S.?

What groups in the U.S. have fought for their civil rights? What taws protect civil rights?

Are there any issues you feel so strongly about that you would join a protest? Explain.


On June 23, 1957, three years before the Woolworth sit-ins, seven students were arrested in Durham, N.C., at the Royal. Ice Cream Shop for staging a sit-in in the "whites only" section. They appealed their convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.


The Greensboro News and Record chronicles the 1960 sit-in movement with a multimedia timeline, photos, and voices of the participants.


(1) Which of the following statements about the events of Feb. 1, 1960, is false?

a They were the first attempt to integrate lunch counters in the South.

b The Greensboro Four had carefully organized and rehearsed their plans.

C The students purchased other items at Woolworth's.

d The manager of the lunch counter told his employees to ignore the students.

(2) The Greensboro sit-ins were a departure from the N.A.A.C.P.'s approach to challenging segregation because

a the N.A.A.C.P. had never attempted a sit-in.

b the sit-ins were spur-of-the-moment rather than carefully calculated.

c the N.A.A.C.P. had focused on challenging segregation in the courts.

d the N.A.A.C.P.'s protests were often violent.

(3)--mandated the segregation of public facilities, such as restaurants and hospitals, in much of the South.

a The Brown v. Board of Education ruling

b "Jim Crow" laws

c The U.S. Supreme Court

d The U.S. Congress

(4) The Greensboro sit-ins touched off similar protests at other stores around the nation, in part because they were

a the first student-run sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

b nonviolent.

c well-attended by white students.

d given much more media attention than previous sit-ins in other cities.

(5) Which of the following was not a factor that helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

a numerous sit-ins across the South

b civil rights marches and demonstrations nationwide

c the looming conflict in Vietnam

d the assassination of President John F. Kennedy


(1) Had you been one of the Greensboro Four, what might you have been thinking as you sat down at the Woolworth's counter? Do you think you would have had the courage to protest this way at the time? Why or why not?

(2) Who are some other important figures of the civil rights movement? What did they do, and what is their legacy today?

(3) What other groups in the U.S. have fought for and won their civil rights? How did they attain their goals?


(1) [a] It was the first attempt to integrate lunch counters in the South.

(2) [c] the N.A.A.C.P. had focused on challenging segregation in the courts.

(3) [b] "Jim Crow" laws

(4) [d] given much more media attention than previous sit-ins in other cities.

(5) [c] the looming conflict in Vietnam
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST; Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond
Author:Bilyeu, Suzanne
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 7, 2010
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