It was shortly after four in the afternoon when four college freshmen entered the Woolworth's store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They purchased a few small items--school supplies, toothpaste--and were careful to keep their receipts. Then they sat down at the store's lunch counter and ordered coffee.
"I'm sorry," said the waitress. "We don't serve Negroes here."
"I beg to differ," said one of the students. He pointed out that the store had just served them--and accepted their money--at a counter just a few feet away. They had the receipts to prove it.
A black woman working at the lunch counter scolded the students for trying to stir up trouble, and the store manager asked them to leave. But the four young men sat quietly at the lunch counter until the store closed at 5:30.
Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, now known as the "Greensboro Four," were all students at North Carolina A&T (Agricultural and Technical) College, a black college in Greensboro. They were teenagers, barely out of high school. But on that Monday afternoon, Feb. 1, 1960, they started a movement that changed America.
A DECADE OF PROTEST
The Greensboro sit-in 50 years ago, and those that followed, ignited a decade of civil rights protests in the U.S. It was a departure from the approach of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the leading civil fights group at the time, which focused on challenging segregation in the courts, a process that could take years. The sit-ins showed that Americans, and young people in particular, could protest against segregation directly and have a real impact. (They also served as a model for later activism, such as the women's movement and student protests against the Vietnam War.)
"The civil rights movement would have moved much slower, would have accomplished far fewer victories if you had not had those student sit-ins and the entry into the movement of all this young energy," says Aldon Morris, author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.
Six years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights movement seemed to have stalled. In Brown, the Court had ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were unconstitutional, making segregation in public schools illegal. But some states virtually ignored the ruling, especially in the South where "Jim Crow" laws and customs often prevailed, and public facilities like hospitals and parks remained segregated, with water fountains and restrooms often designated "White" or "Colored." In many places, blacks could not eat in the same restaurants as whites.
Earlier sit-ins in the Midwest and the South had, in some cases, led to the integration of local lunch counters. But they were mostly isolated incidents that hadn't gained momentum. The Greensboro sit-ins happened at just the right time and place, according to William Chafe, author of Civilities and Civil Rights, a history of civil rights in Greensboro.
"There was growing impatience within the black community over the absence of any significant progress on desegregation after Brown, both in Greensboro and throughout the country," says Chafe. "It was like pent-up pressure ready to burst at the appropriate moment--and February 1st provided that moment."
But the four A&T students didn't go to Woolworth's on a whim. They'd been discussing it in their dorm rooms for months: Why was it that a store could cheerfully...