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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.
On February 1, 1960, four African American students – Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain – from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black college/university, 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 next day there was a total of 28 students at the Woolworth lunch counter for the sit in. On the third day, there were 300 activists, and later, around 1000.
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.’
In just two months the sit-in movement spread to 15 cities in 9 states. Other stores, such as the one in Atlanta, moved to desegregate.
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. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 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.”
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, St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952.
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. 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.
On August 19, 1958, the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council began a six-year long campaign of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, restaurants, and cafes in Oklahoma City. The Greensboro sit-in, however, was the most influential and received a great deal of attention in the press.
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