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A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History

The Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, leading to increased national sentiment at a crucial period in American history.[1]

Contents

Actions at Woolworth's

On February 1, 1960, four African American students – Ezell A. Blair Jr. (also known as Jibreel Khazan), David Leinhail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, and Franklin Eugene McCain – from Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, a historically black college, sat at a segregated lunch counter in the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's store. This lunch counter only had chairs/stools for whites, while blacks had to stand and eat. Although they were refused service, they were allowed to stay at the counter. The four students were aware that Woolworth’s would not serve blacks at their lunch counter but they sat down anyway, engaging themselves in a plan they had been discussing for a month prior to the sit-in.

When notified by one of the waitresses of the events that were occurring in his store that February afternoon, the store’s manager Clarence Harris first told his staff to leave the students alone, hoping they would eventually leave. However, Harris grew nervous that violence would soon ensue so he went to the police. Although he did not have the men arrested, assuming their demonstration would soon end, he did have several police officers stationed in the store.

Contrary to the manager's assumptions, the following morning the four students, along with 23 other men and 4 women showed up at Woolworth’s to protest. As the days went on, more and more students from the Agricultural and Technical State University as well as Bennett College and Dudley High School (all with a dominantly African American student population) participated in the Woolworth sit-in.[2]

The number of students grew so large that by February 5, four days after the sit-in began, 300 students arrived at Woolworth’s to take part in the peaceful protest. On February 6, tensions mounted between the blacks and whites at the lunch counter. The football team from the university arrived in hopes of using their size to threaten anyone who tried to stop the protest. As white reaction to the demonstration grew more violent, a bomb scare forced the protesters out of Woolworth's and C.L. Harris closed his store for over two weeks.[3]

Although the phone call that announced the bomb threat did occur, many people were suspicious of the caller's identity, believing that the person was not anonymous and that it was an attempt to halt the protest. The sit-in that had begun with only four students had sparked a massive movement throughout the Southern states as more and more protesters engaged in this type of demonstration.[2] This protest sparked sit-ins and economic boycotts that became a hallmark of the American civil rights movement.

According to Franklin McCain, one of the four black teenagers who sat at the "whites only" stools:

"Some way through, an old white lady, who must have been 75 or 85, came over and put her hands on my shoulders and said, 'Boys, I am so proud of you. You should have done this 10 years ago.'"[4]

Impact

As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Smaller towns like Lexington, Kentucky also saw protests.

The movement then spread to other Southern cities like Richmond, Virginia, and to Nashville, Tennessee where the students of the Nashville Student Movement had been trained for a Sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson and had already started the process when Greensboro occurred. Although the majority of these protests were peaceful, there were instances where protests became violent.[3] For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tensions rose between blacks and whites and fights broke out.[2]

Despite the sometimes violent nature of the sit-ins, these demonstrations eventually led to positive results. For example, the sit-ins received significant media and government attention. When the Woolworth's sit-in began, the Greensboro newspaper published daily articles on the growth and impact of the demonstration. The sit-ins made headlines in other cities as well, as the demonstrations spread throughout the Southern states. A Charlotte newspaper published an article on February 9, 1960, describing the state-wide sit-ins and the resulting closures of dozens of lunch counters.[5] Furthermore, on March 16, 1960, President Eisenhower supported the students and expressed his sympathy for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights. President Eisenhower expressed his concern, saying that he was:

"deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights…of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution"[6]

In many towns, the sit-ins were successful in achieving the desegregation of lunch counters and other public places. Nashville's students attained citywide desegregation in May, 1960, and Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store desegregated its lunch counter several months after its sit-in, on July 26, 1960, serving blacks and whites alike.[3]

The media picked up this issue and covered it nationwide, beginning with lunch counters and spreading to other forms of public accommodation, including transport facilities, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and even museums around the South.[7] The Civil Rights Act of 1964[8] mandated desegregation in public accommodations.

In 1993, a portion of the lunch counter was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The Greensboro Historical Museum contains four chairs from the Woolworth counter along with photos of the original four protesters, a timeline of the events, and headlines from the media.

Several documentaries have been produced about these men who sparked the sit in movement, including PBS' "February One."[9]

Previous sit-ins

The sit-in movement used the strategy of nonviolent resistance, which originated in Gandhi's Indian independence movement and was later brought to the Civil Rights movement by Martin Luther King. This was not the first sit-in to challenge racial segregation. As far back as 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, as they did in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. In 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia library.[10]

In a pre-cursor to the Woolworth sit-ins, on June 23, 1957, seven students organized by a local pastor were arrested in Durham, North Carolina at the Royal Ice Cream Shop for staging a sit-in in the "whites only" section.[11] After being convicted in North Carolina courts, the seven appealed their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear their case.

The most successful previous Sit-in started August 19, 1958, when twelve children from the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, led by the mother of two of the children, Clara Luper, began their Sit-ins. They were soon successful in desegregating drugstore lunch-counters in three states. That success began a six-year long campaign of successful sit-ins at other segregated lunch counters, restaurants, and cafes in Oklahoma City. The Greensboro sit-in two years later, however, were more influential because they received more attention in the press.[12]

See also

References

  1. ^ First Southern Sit-in, Greensboro NC ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  2. ^ a b c Wolff, Miles. Lunch at the Five and Ten. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.
  3. ^ a b c Schlosser, Jim. “Timeline.” Greensboro Sit-ins. Ed. Teresa Prout. 2008. News and Record. 2 Feb. 2009 <http://www.sitins.com/timeline.shtml>
  4. ^ Gary Younge, "The act that gave the struggle new life" McCain has described the same event for National Public Radio, broadcast on "All Things Considered," February 1, 2008.
  5. ^ “NC Stores Close Down Counters.” Greensboro Sit-ins. Ed. Teresa Prout. 2008. News and Record. 2 Feb. 2009 <http://www.sitins.com/headline_021060.shtml>
  6. ^ Wilkinson, Doris Yvonne. Black Revolt: Strategies of Protest. Berkeley: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1969.
  7. ^ Sit-ins Spread Across the South ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  8. ^ Civil Rights Act of 1964
  9. ^ "February One".
  10. ^ "America's First Sit-Down Strike: The 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In". City of Alexandria. http://oha.alexandriava.gov/bhrc/lessons/bh-lesson2_reading2.html. Retrieved 2009-08-22.  
  11. ^ "NC Finally Recognizes Pre-Woolworth Sit-Ins In 1957", Greensboro Telegram Newspaper, January 19, 2008
  12. ^ Davis, Townsend (1998). Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 311. ISBN 0393045927. http://books.google.com/books?id=S7IYlI9KopkC.  

External links

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