Fifty years ago today, February 1, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students sat-in at Woolworth's whites only lunch counter.
Their courageous action inspired a movement that challenged the American system of Jim Crow segregation.
What happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1st, went unreported in The New York Times the next day, but it had the effect of the Boston Tea Party. It was the single spark that was to ignite the conscience of white America and the hope of black America.
The four freshmen from a Jim Crow college who sat-in that day in Greensboro's downtown F.W. Woolworth could hardly sense the historic significance of their deed. No one, not John Kennedy, then starting his bid for the Presidency, not Martin Luther King, then a Moses without a movement, not George Wallace, then running for governor of Alabama, could know that a simple plea for a cup of coffee would set into motion a chain of events whose final meaning, six years later, is still shrouded beyond the rim of history.
As Jack Newfield wrote:
On Sunday night, January 31st, four freshmen at all-Negro North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, in Greensboro, relaxed in a dorm in Scott Hall, discussing the problem. Ezell Blair, Jr., chairman of the Student Committee for Justice, was one of them. the other three were David Richmond, seventeen, of Greensboro; Franklin McCain, eighteen, of Washington, D.C.; and Joseph McNeill, seventeen, of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The quartet, according to Blair, "spent a lot of time discussing the segregated situations we were exposed to. . . . It just didn't seem right that we would have to walk two miles to town, buy notebook paper and toothpaste in a national chain store, and then not be able to get a bite to eat and a cup of coffee at the counter."
On Sunday night the same dehumanizing experiences were being recited again when Joe McNeill exclaimed, "well, we've talked about it long enough. let's do something."
The four decided to "do something" the next day. They told no one of their decision.
At about 4;45 p.m. on February 1st, the four freshmen entered the F.W. Woolworth Company store on North Elm street in the heart of the city. each of them purchased a tube of toothpaste and then sat down at the lunch counter.
A Negro woman working in the kitchen rushed over tot hem and said, "You know you're not supposed to be in here." Later the woman called the four "ignorant" and a "disgrace to their race."
The students requested four cups of coffee from the white waitress.
"I'm sorry but we don't serve colored here," she informed them politely.
Franklin McCain responded, "I beg your pardon, but you just served me at the counter two feet away. Why is it that you serve me at that counter, and deny me at another? Why not stop serving me at all the counters?"
A few minutes later the manager of the store told the youths, "I'm sorry but we can't serve you because it is not the local custom."
The four young Negroes remained at the counter, coffeeless, until 5;30 p.m., when the store closed.
The next day, Tuesday, February 2nd, sixteen other North Carolina A and T undergraduates joined the four pioneers at the lunch counter. they were all denied service, and returned on Wednesday, fifty strong, including Negro high-school students from Dudley High and a few white co-eds from Women's College in Greensboro.
By Friday, February 5th, the integrated group had grown so large that some of them sat-in at an S.H. Kress store, one block away. they, too, were refused service. On Friday, a large group of white high-school toughs in black leather jackets, carrying Confederate flags, began to heckle the students.
The confrontation was repeated on Saturday afternoon, when several hundred students, many carrying Bibles and all well dressed, sat-in and were surrounded by taunting white teen-agers.
At about 3 p.m. the management of Woolworth received a bomb threat, and the tense police used that as the pretext for emptying the store of both demonstrators and hecklers.
The students then marched to the Kress store. The manager met them in the doorway and shouted, "this store is closed, as of now."
The students cheered, feeling they had won a victory. "It's all over," they shouted. But it had really just began. An idea's time had come.
The next week there were spontaneous sit-in demonstrations in many parts of North Carolina--Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, High Point, Salisbury, and Concord. By Wednesday, February 10th, the movement had spilled over the border into Rock Hill and Orangeburg, in South Carolina. In Rock Hill a Negro boy was knocked off a stool by a white teenager, and ammonia was hurled through the door of a drugstore, bringing tears to the eyes of the students.
The sit-ins next swept into Hampton, Richmond, and Portsmouth, in Virginia. the first arrests came on February 12th in Raleigh, North Carolina, where forty-three students, including several whites, were jailed on charges of trespassing.
Twelve days after Greensboro, forty students, including John Lewis, future chairman of SNCC, sat-in at Woolworth's in Nashville, during a snowstorm. On February 27th, seventy-six people sat-in in Nashville. Lighted cigarettes were jabbed at the necks of several girls by segregationist hecklers. A white student from Vanderbilt University was dragged off his stool and pummeled. Paul LePrad, a Negro student at Fisk University, was pulled from his stool by a white adult and punched in the mouth. he got up and climbed back on his stool. By the end of the day all seventy-six had been jailed.
In Orangeburg, South Carolina, students at Claffin College and nearby South Carolina State held a series of workshops and seminars in nonviolence. On March 14th in Orangeburg, lunch counters were reopened after a month's closing, and seven hundred students marched nonviolently downtown. Police met them with tear-gas bombs and fire hoses. Dozens were knocked off their feet and slammed against walls by high-pressure hoses that tore the bark off tree stumps.
More than 500 were arrested, and 350 of them were locked into an eight-feet-high chicken coop because the jails were full. The next day The New York Times carried a front-page picture of the 350 huddling in the chicken-coop stockade, in subfreezing temperatures--singing "God Bless America."
By the first anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in, the NAACP reported it had paid for the legal defense of seventeen hundred demonstrators during the intervening year. According to Howard Zinn, in The New Abolitionists, more than 50,000 people participated in some kind of civil rights protest in the twelve months after Greensboro, and "over 3600 demonstrators spent time in jail."
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of those first, hardly noticed sit-ins. Harold Flemming, who was director of the Southern Regional Council in 1960, said recently, "Just as the Supreme Court decision was the legal turning point, the sit-ins were the psychological turning point in race relations in the South."
Ralph McGill, the beacon of Atlanta liberalism, did not at first support the sit-in movement. But a few years later, in his book, The South and the Southerner, he wrote
The sit-ins were, without question, productive of the most change. . . . No argument in a court of law could have dramatized the immorality and irrationality of such a custom as did the sit-in. . . . The sit-ins reached far out into the back country. They inspired adult men and women, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, to support the young students in the cities. Not even the Supreme Court decision on schools in 1954 had done this. . . .
The sit-in technique was not invented in Greensboro. the Gandhi-influenced Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had used it successfully in Chicago, in 1942, and again in St. Louis, in 1949.
Greensboro was not a particularly backward city in terms of race relations. its public schools desegregated voluntarily in 1955, and both daily newspapers were to come out against lunch-counter segregationist after the sit-ins began.
It all seemed to be the caprice of history that the spontaneous sit-in on February 1st in Greensboro should give off sparks that showered the South, igniting local protests in sixty-five communities in twelve states within six weeks. Perhaps the Greensboro sit-in was merely the catalyst that needed to be added to the existing chemicals of the 1954 school desegregation decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the emerging nations of Africa, in order to liberate the damned-up rivers of idealism, energy, and courage that cascaded through the South those first weeks of 1960.
Source: Jack Newfield. A Prophetic Minority. New York: The New American Library, 1966.