F. W. Woolworth Sit-in February 1, 1960
Fifty years ago, four men stood up by sitting down
The lunch counter at the former F.W. Woolworth is preserved at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C.ASSOCIATED PRESS / CHUCK BURTON
By MARTHA WAGGONER The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8:36 p.m.
GREENSBORO, N.C. - The four college freshmen walked quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the "whites only" lunch counter -- and sparked a wave of civil rights protest that changed America.
"Nothing has ever happened to me since then that topped that good feeling of being clean and fully accepted and feeling proud of me."
-- Joseph McNeil,
one of four college students who sat at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch
counter on Feb. 1, 1960
Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat near an older white woman on the silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The black students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous act. Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously planned, down to buying a few school supplies and toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the lunch counter was the only part of the store where racial segregation still ruled.
"The best feeling of my life," McCain said, was "sitting on that dumb stool."
"I felt so relieved," he added. "I felt so at peace and so self-accepted at that very moment. Nothing has ever happened to me since then that topped that good feeling of being clean and fully accepted and feeling proud of me."
They weren't afraid, even though they had no way of knowing how the sit-ins would end. What they did know was this: They were tired, they were angry and they were ready to change the world.
The number of protesters mushroomed, reaching at least 1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.
The sit-in led to the formation in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became the cutting edge of the student direct-action civil rights movement. The demonstrations between 1960 and 1965 helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"Greensboro was the pivot that turned the history of America around," says Bill Chafe, Duke University historian and author of "Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom."
On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store. The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.
The building remains because two men -- county commissioner Skip Alston and city council member Earl Jones -- arranged to buy it in 1993 for $700,000 from a bank that planned to turn the space into a parking lot.
"It is my fervent wish, hope and desire that this great edifice ... will be a grand monument to the struggle of all people who strive for freedom," said Blair -- now named Jibreel Khazan -- in a telephone interview. He took the new name in 1968 and has worked as a teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and storyteller.
McCain went on to become a research chemist and sales executive, while McNeil retired as a two-star major general from the Air Force Reserves in 2001 and also worked as an investment banker. Richmond died in 1990.
The four freshmen at N.C. A&T State University were part of an NAACP youth group started by Ella Baker, known as the mother of SNCC. They spent much of the fall semester discussing how to fulfill the promise of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Other sit-ins had occurred. But they didn't catch fire the way the one in Greensboro did.
The time was right, Chafe says: Six years had passed since the Brown decision, but little had changed. And the place was right as well: Greensboro's white leaders believed theirs was a progressive city and they wouldn't stomach brutality.