On February 1, 1960, four black college freshmen, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, sat at Woolworth’s “White Only” lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. The white waiter refused and suggested that they order a take-out meal from the “standing” counter. But the students didn’t budge. The store manager then approached the men, asking them to leave. But they haven’t budged. They also did not give up their seat when a policeman arrived and threatened his baton against his hand directly behind them.
While lunch counter sit-ins had already taken place, the four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University have drawn national attention to the cause. By just sitting peacefully and quietly in their place, they confused the staff and left them unsure of how to apply their “white only” rule. Eventually, the manager closed the store early and the men left – along with the rest of the customers.
It was a small victory – and one that was going to be built. The efforts of the Greensboro Four inspired a sit-in movement that eventually spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Not only were lunch counters across the country integrated one by one, but a student movement was galvanized.
“Sit-ins establish a crucial type of youth leadership and organization,” says Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College. “They mean that young people are going to be one of the main driving forces for the progress of the civil rights movement.”
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Greensboro Sit-In Took Months Of Planning
The Greensboro sit-in was not a random act of rebellion, but the result of months of planning. The students had received advice from activist mentors and collaborated with students at Bennett College in Greensboro. They also drew on civil rights causes from previous years, including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.
A member of the Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, resolved to join the lunch counters after a trip in 1959 to New York, a city where he had not encountered the Jim Crow laws. Upon his return to North Carolina, the Greensboro Trailways Bus Terminal Cafe denied him service at their lunch counter, making him determined to fight segregation. McNeil worked in the university library with a fellow activist, Eula Hudgens, who encouraged him to protest. Hudgens had been on the 1947 reconciliation trip against racial segregation on interstate buses. It was a precursor to the Freedom Rides of 1961, just as the 1942 sit-in at Chicago’s Jack Spratt Coffee House was a precursor to the Greensboro sit-in of 1960.
“There have also been sit-ins in Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri,” says John L. Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. “They were happening in a lot of places before Greensboro.”
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The ‘Bennett Belles’ join the sit-ins
In late 1959, the Greensboro Four attended NAACP meetings at Bennett College, where they collaborated with the female students known as Bennett Belles on a plan. The Belles resolved to act as lookouts when the four men took their places at the lunch counter on the first day.
“They had a strong black community in Greensboro, steeped in struggle and willing to support young people through moral and financial support,” says Will Guzmán, professor of history at Prairie View A&M University.
Another critical element of the protest was the looping in the media. Several lunch counter sit-ins had taken place in the Midwest, East Coast, and South in the 1940s and 1950s, but these protests did not gain national attention. The Greensboro Four wanted their protest recognized, so before heading to Woolworth’s on February 1, they arranged for Ralph Johns, a white businessman and activist, to alert the press to their plans.
“These are the real beginnings of television media; people can see the sit-in and imagine how they would do it themselves, ”said Theoharis, author of The rebellious life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Sit-in movements spread
Word quickly spread about the Greensboro sit-in, and students from North Carolina A&T and Bennett College took part in the sit-in the next day. During the week, dozens of young people, including students from Woman’s College at the University of North Carolina, gathered at the lunch counters and demanded to be served.
“We’ve even had people who saw the sit-ins going on at the lunch counter from other states coming here,” Swaine says.
The sit-ins not only attracted new protesters, they also attracted counter-protesters who showed up to harass, insult and attack them. But the acts of intimidation did not stop the movement from building. After nearly a week of protests, approximately 1,400 students showed up at Greensboro Woolworth to demonstrate.
The lunch counter sit-ins then moved beyond Greensboro to North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Durham and Winston-Salem. Police arrested 41 students for trespassing on a Raleigh Woolworth. A dozen Bennett Belles were also arrested during the area’s sit-ins.
As protests spread to 13 states, the focus of sit-ins widened, with students protesting not only separate lunch counters, but also separate hotels, beaches and libraries.
READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement: A Timeline
Success in Greensboro sparks more student activism
It took months, but on July 25, 1960, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was finally integrated. The counters of other cities did the same in the following months. In addition to desegregating eating establishments, the sit-ins led to the creation of the Raleigh Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee. Activist Ella Baker, then director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, hosted the group’s first meeting focused on youth.
“SNCC played a pivotal role in getting Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to join them in moving into the cafeteria at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta in 1960,” Guzmán says. SNCC also “pushed King to take a stronger stand against the Vietnam War in 1967 and popularized the slogan ‘Black Power!’ in 1966. “
SNCC activists such as John Lewis took part in the Freedom Rides of 1961, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Freedom Summer effort of 1963. They also worked with the NAACP to pass the 1964 Law on Human Rights. civil rights.
“Maybe it’s easy to think the sit-ins were about eating next to white people or ‘hot dog and coke’, but of course it was more complex than that,” Guzmán says. The movement was about “simple dignity, respect, access, equality of opportunity and, above all, legal and constitutional concerns”.