There was once a store called Woolworths. It sold dry goods, mostly cheap stuff, including paper and pencils. Many Woolworths also included a cheap restaurant where you could get coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich, also cheap. Fifty-three years ago today, a Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, was the site of a new phase in the civil rights movement, the beginning of the sit-in campaign.
On Monday morning, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, wearing their best clothes, went shopping at the Woolworths, bought some school supplies, then sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee. The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, knew the store wouldn’t serve food to black people, so they waited. Woolworths shut the lunch counter down.
The next day, black and white students filled the lunch counter at Woolworths, and by the end of the week, every lunch counter in downtown Greensboro was filled with students protesting segregation–and organizing a boycott of the downtown businesses that practiced segregation. Over the next weeks, sit-ins spread across the segregated South, led by student activists.
The four freshmen, no not the singing group, had all been active in the NAACP’s youth council, but none of them saw the large organization as a good foundation for a more activist and confrontational phase in the civil rights struggle. Pushed by the heroic Ella Baker, the NAACP launched an initiative to create a new student-based civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged dramatic education and direct action campaigns across the South for most of the rest of the decade.
Today is a great day to commemorate the sit-in movement, but anniversaries can be slippery. When I tell the story to my classes, I usually start with the long Sunday night conversation when the brave young men talked themselves into action. You could start the story much earlier, with the sit-ins organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized decades earlier, or with the sit-down strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World at the start of the 20th century, even before the founding of the NAACP. You could also start the story with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks, or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The Greensboro students knew all those stories.
Anniversaries help us remember important events and twists in history, but they invariably simplify longer and more complicated stories. The drama of the Greensboro sit-in makes for a good entry into thinking about the civil rights movement, and into thinking about how regular people sometimes make history. The names of Baker, Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond are not particularly well-known today, not like those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, or Thurgood Marshall. The names of the thousands of young people crusading against segregation with them are even lesser known. But movements are only possible and potentially effective with people willing to take risks without counting on seeing their names in the history books.
The lunch counter itself, or at least a portion of it, has been reassembled at the American Museum of National History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. There are only four seats on display. When we think about the civil rights movement, however, we need to extend the counter a long way.