When the Greensboro Four Took a Stand by Sitting-In
On this date in American history, Texas voted to secede from the Union. One year later to the day, on February 1, 1862, the Atlantic Monthly published Julia Ward Howe’s poem “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Set to music, those words were a great morale booster for abolitionists, the soldiers in blue, and the North as a whole. It helped win a war, as did other rousing Yankee tunes.
But although Union Army marching songs and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox effectuated the end of slavery, that unspeakable institution gave way in the South to a version of American apartheid that lasted another century.
Dismantling it took a long time, but one important skirmish took place on this day 56 years ago at the lunch counter at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond each took a seat at the bar-style diner in Greensboro’s downtown Woolworth store, then known as a “five-and-dime.” There and at other such establishments across the South, blacks could shop but the lunch counter was designated “whites only.”
The young men, soon to be immortalized as the “Greensboro Four,” were all freshmen at North Carolina A&T. They lived in Scott Hall, and had bonded immediately after enrolling at the school the previous autumn. While returning from his family’s home in New York after the Christmas break, Joseph McNeil had received a rude reminder: He’d been denied food service at the Greensboro Greyhound bus depot.
After he related this indignity to his friends, all four decided to challenge segregation directly. They entered Woolworth at 4:30 p.m. on February 1, a Monday, and politely ordered a cup of coffee. They were refused service and were asked to leave. A police officer was called to the scene, but the students had broken no law -- no law on the books, anyway -- and had remained calm and peaceful, and were not arrested. Around 5 p.m. the store closed early.
The young men returned to campus and told their story, which electrified their fellow students. The four returned the next day, this time joined by 25 others, four of them women. This time they sat from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some white patrons heckled them, others watched impassively. The African-Americans were not allowed to order lunch.
On Wednesday, 60 students arrived at the lunch counter, some from nearby Bennett College and a local high school, taking up every available seat. Woolworth, responding to news media inquiries, issued a statement from its corporate headquarters saying that company policy was “to abide by local custom.”
But it was just these customs the students were trying to upend. On Thursday, the number of protesters swelled to 300. On Friday, 50 white males took the seats before the black students arrived. Three of the whites were arrested when they became disorderly. Yes, the times, they were a-changing. By the end of March, lunch counter sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in every state in the old Confederacy.
On April 2, the Greensboro Woolworth and the local Kress store, which had also been hit with protests, closed their lunch counters rather than integrate them. But adhering to the whims of Jim Crow was hurting business, and by late July, the manager of Woolworth agreed to serve four other black patrons -- actually, they were store employees -- at the lunch counter.
Although that was hardly the end of the struggle for civil rights in the South, it was a mile marker in the inexorable -- but non-linear -- march of the human race toward enlightenment. Sometimes, support for the better angels of our natures comes from unexpected quarters, if we listen carefully enough to receive it.
One person who possessed that kind of grace was Franklin McCain. He passed away in 2014, but he never stopped leading by example. A few years ago, he related a poignant footnote about the story of the sit-in.
On that first day back in 1960, a female patron sat at the counter, only a few stools away from the four students. Described by McCain as “a little old white lady,” she eyed the protesters impassively.
When she finished her doughnut and coffee, she paid her bill and started to walk out of the store. McCain momentarily let his imagination run away with him. Briefly wondering if she might be carrying knitting needles and scissors in her purse, he pictured in his mind being stabbed in the neck by the woman as she walked behind them.
Instead, she stopped briefly and put her hands gently on McCain’s and McNeil’s shoulders.
“Boys, I am so proud of you,” she said. “I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago.”
“What I learned from that little incident was -- don't you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them,” McCain recalled later.
“I’m even more cognizant of that today,” he added, “and I’m always open to people who speak differently, who look differently, and who come from different places.”