February 16, 2022 • Sam Grabel
On Feb. 1, 1960, four freshman students at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, one of Greensboro’s historically Black colleges, convened at the Bluford Library on campus. Jibreel Khazan (born Ezell Blair Jr.), David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil had come up with a simple plan that was nevertheless daunting, given the institutionalized racism that permeated the South: to sit at the “whites-only” lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s five-and-dime. These brave young men’s simple act of defiance would send shockwaves through the nation, igniting more protests of the kind that led to the end of segregation at Woolworth’s and other retail stores.
Throughout the late ’50s, the civil rights movement had gained momentum across the South in protest of the segregationist Jim Crow laws many state and local governments had enacted during Reconstruction. Just a few years earlier, the students had seen the success of a citywide boycott of the public transport system of Montgomery, Alabama, which started when a white bus driver ordered Rosa Parks, a young Black woman, to give up her seat on a full bus for a white passenger. Parks, a longtime activist with the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), declined to move and was arrested and charged with a violation of segregationist city laws.
The ensuing boycott became American lore, elevating figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence and demonstrating the efficacy of nonviolent action. At the time, one of the sponsors of the boycott estimated that it cost the city of Montgomery up to $3,000 per day, underlining the notion that one of the best ways to effect change is through economic protest.
With the Montgomery bus boycott and other similar protests in mind, Blair, Richmond, McCain and McNeil resolved to challenge the “separate but equal” status quo. Woolworth’s, a department store, served both Black and white customers but maintained a lunch counter that only seated white patrons. On Feb. 1, 1960, the four students entered the store and bought small items, keeping the receipts, before sitting down at the lunch counter. When they were refused service, they produced the receipts and asked why their money was good enough for the rest of the store but not at the lunch counter. They remained there until the store closed.
In the days and weeks that followed, the sit-in grew in size and profile. The next day, the Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, were joined by “about 16” fellow students, according to the Global Nonviolent Action Databse (although accounts vary regarding the exact size of the group). By the third day, their numbers had grown even stronger: Students from other Greensboro colleges had begun to join, and by day four, hundreds of students had joined the nonviolent protest.
This exponential growth was no coincidence. Not only had the NAACP endorsed the protests almost immediately, increasing their legitimacy, but the organizers had alerted local news outlets that covered the movement from the outset, many running editorials that sided with the Black students. Soon, the national media picked up the story. Similar sit-ins appeared in other cities across the South, and people picketed outside Woolworth’s locations in the North—already integrated according to local law—in solidarity.
The growth and coverage of the Greensboro protest garnered the attention of white counter-protesters who, by the weekend, showed up in force waving Confederate flags and berating the Black students. The counterprotests came to a head on Feb. 6, when a bomb threat was called into the store and everyone was evacuated. While the rest of the store reopened a couple of days later, the lunch counter remained closed for several weeks.
On Feb. 27, after the lunch counter reopened, the Greensboro city government formed the Mayor’s Committee on Community Relations to try and negotiate a solution with the storeowners and protesters. The committee announced in April that its efforts had failed—local storeowners completely refused to integrate their counters, even in part.
Protests resumed the same day. More than 1,200 students picketed outside Greensboro businesses, and prominent civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall joined the chorus of calls for change. These protests continued for several months, impacting local businesses’ bottom lines. Soon, stores began to integrate in order to try and recoup lost profits—not only in Greensboro but also in other major cities across the South. Woolworth’s integrated its lunch counter in late July that year. By the time it did, it had lost as much as $200,000 due to protests.+
The Greensboro sit-ins were significant because, though they were not the first such protests of the American civil rights movement, they catalyzed a wave of similar actions across the region that received widespread support from local communities. Additionally, the media coverage of the protests brought the demonstrators’ plight directly to the living rooms of families around the country. As the late Sen. John Lewis remarked: “Seeing people sitting in the Carolinas every night … gave us a sense of kinship, a bond. We said, ‘If they can do it in Montgomery and Greensboro, we can do it in some of these smaller cities.’” The sit-in movement became a blueprint for other protests against racial inequality—including in Greensboro again several years later, when demonstrators pushed for integration in other places such as movie theaters, restaurants and hotels.
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