Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Greensboro Four

"It was February 1, 1960.  They didn't need menus.  Their order was simple.  A doughnut and coffee with cream on the side."*

Four black men from the local Agricultural & Technical College walked into a Woolworth's at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960.  They headed for the "Whites Only" lunch counter, sat down on stools, placed their order, and then waited...and waited...and waited.  In fact, they sat on their lunch counter stools all day.  They studied, they did their homework and they waited in silence. 

News spread across town.  In time their numbers grew.  They returned on Day 2, twenty strong, prepared for another long wait.  Reporters started to cover the event, called a "sit-in".  The manager called the police but the police chief said that unless they protested violently, he could do nothing.  And so they sat.  All they wanted was a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

By Day 3, news had spread even further.  At 60 strong, the growing story was widely covered in the press.  When Whites approached the lunch counter, some refused to sit with them, some heckled them (KKK) and some joined the sit-in.  The protesters' numbers were so great that they had to start taking shifts to cover the day.  They did their school work.  They waited in silence.

By Day 4, their total reached 300.  "The times, they were a-changing" in North Carolina as other cities joined in:  Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, and Winston-Salem.  Later, sit-ins were held in Richmond, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.  One report stated that some protesters even had food poured on them by rabble rousers.  But still they waited.

By February 7, the sit-ins totalled 54 in 15 different cities.  And still they waited.

Black organizations suggested a boycott of all stores with segregated lunch counters and many complied, sending Woolworth's sales plunging by a third.  Protests spread to lunch counters at Kress and Walgreen's. 

President Eisenhower made a speech announcing that he was "deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Consitution."  Yes, "times they were a-changing".

Finally, on July 25, 1960, the black employees at the Greensboro whites only lunch counter were served on the same stools that the Greensboro Four had sat on.  The following day, Woolworth's opened up the counter to all blacks and 300 were served that day.  The Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, Frank McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr., finally got their cup of coffee and doughnut.

It would take another four years, but the Civil Rights Act was finally signed by President Johnson in 1964, thanks largely in part to the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.

*Sit-In:  How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Andrea Davis Pinkney)

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