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Greensboro Sit-ins - Launch of a Civil Rights Movement

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The Story

Introduction by James Farmer

The sit-ins were very significant to the movement. They symbolized a change in the mood of African-American people. Up until then, we had accepted segregation begrudgingly but we had accepted it. We had spoken against it, we had made speeches, but no one had defied segregation. At long last after decades of acceptance, four freshman students at North Carolina A&T went into Woolworth and at the lunch counter they "sat-in." When told they would not be served, they refused to leave and this sparked a movement throughout the South. Black students in colleges throughout the South saw it on television they said "Hey man, look at what our brothers and sisters in Greensboro are doing. What's wrong with us? Why don't we go out and do the same thing?" And they went out, so it swept across the South like the proverbial wildfire, with students rejecting segregation. With their very bodies they obstructed the wheels of injustice.

In the North, in addition to sending people down to hold institutes of non-violent training ... we boycotted the variety stores, the so-called 5 and 10-cent stores, Woolworth, Kress, Grant and so on. We put picket signs in front of the stores in the North urging people not to patronize them. This was effective too, but it was sparked by the sit-ins. It was effective, because Woolworth, in their annual report to stockholders in 1962, said that the curve of profits had gone down. That does not mean that they had lost money, but it meant that the curve which had been upward, now went down. They gave as the number one reason the nationwide boycotts of their stores in support of the southern student sit-in movement.

That was great. The students sat in. Went to jail, came out, sat in again. Marched. Picketed. Sat in again. And went to jail again. They simply would not stop.

It meant to black people that segregation could be defeated. Segregation persisted only because we allowed it to persist. We obeyed segregation, we did not go to these stores that segregated the lunch counters and so forth. We were reminded of Thoreau's essay of "Civil Disobedience." In that essay Thoreau said "Most of all I must see to it that I do not lend myself to the evil which I condemn."

We had been condemning segregation verbally for a long time, but we had lent ourselves to it by not sitting in, by not trying to patronize those places that segregated.

The story of the Greensboro sit-ins

On Feb. 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four, as they would later be called, felt isolated and alone as they sat at that whites-only lunch counter at the Woolworth Store on South Elm Street.

They were seeking more than what they ordered sodas, coffee, doughnuts. They were attacking the social order of the time. The unwritten rules of society required black people to stay out of white-owned restaurants, to use only designated drinking fountains and restrooms, to sit in the rear of Greensboro city buses, in a separate balcony at the Center Theatre and in segregated bleachers during sports events at War Memorial Stadium.

The four black youths Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond, all still teenagers and all freshmen on academic scholarships at N.C. A&T State University had entered the unknown. McCain, who grew up in Washington and spent one year attending Greensboro's Dudley High School, says he expected to be arrested, beaten to a pulp or worse.

All four would emerge unscathed and eventually be recognized as heroes of the civil rights movement.

It's more amusing than ironic what's happening now, 38 years later. Everybody wants to be part of a winner, even those who weren't cheering for victory in the beginning.

They were persistent. In the days after Feb. 1, they would be joined by other students at the Woolworth counter and at the Kress 5 & 10 lunch counter a half-block away. Their protests inspired black people to do the same at Formica-topped dime-store counters in other cities. The movement they started led to the integration of the Woolworth and the Kress chains, landmarks on every main street in the South.

Today, the three surviving members of the Greensboro Four laugh and make room for all who claim they were with them in person or in spirit 38 years go at the counter.

Franklin McCain concedes he can't remember everybody, of course, because by the fourth and fifth day of the sit-ins, the original four had grown to hundreds of demonstrators downtown. But many of the participants lacked the patience to sit for long periods of time while spectators heckled and stared at them.

"What people won't talk (about), what people don't like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people," McCain says. "I can say this: when the television cameras stopped rolling and we didn't have eight or 10 reporters left, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line."

The three surviving members of the Greensboro Four David Richmond of Greensboro died in 1990, 11 months after a huge 30th anniversary commemoration of the sit-ins recently recalled their feelings on that Feb. 1 and what led them to make such a bold move. They discussed who, if anyone, knew of their plans in advance. They talked about, and dismissed, claims made in recent years that they were serving as substitutes for Bennett College female students.

The three men talked about the unlikely supporters they encountered from the elderly white woman who cheered them on that first day to the city's richest man at the time, Spencer Love, who was determined that no blood would be spilt in his city.

They also talked about why they dared take on a system so deeply ingrained in the city and South. "From my perspective, it was a down payment on manhood," McNeil said. "The secret of life is known when to take on something difficult and to take something on that might have enormous risks and implications."

The Greensboro Four acted at a time when protests against segregation in schools and on buses were taking place in the South, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But there were few challenges to segregation in privately owned businesses, such as Woolworth. The thinking was that a man's business was an extension of his home. It was his castle, and he had the right of association.

In this case, the man with the keys to the castle was Clarence "Curly" Harris, the long-time manager of the Woolworth store on South Elm Street, one of the most prosperous in the Woolworth chain. Harris had been reading in the newspapers about growing black resistance in the South. In a rare interview, the 92-year-old Harris says he sensed the four teenagers at his lunch counter would not go away easily.

He recalls calling his supervisor, who told him not to worry, that the students would give up soon and the incident would blow over without harm to the store's robust sales. Harris disagreed.

The sit-ins lasted off and on for five months before Woolworth and the Kress store down the street agreed to integrate.

Today, millions visit the Smithsonian Institution and see the photos that Jack Moebes, a Greensboro News & Record photographer at the time, took on the first and second days of the sit-ins. Four stools and a section of the counter from the store are also part of the display.

Until the store closed in 1995, a sit-in commemoration was held there every five years on Feb. 1. The Greensboro Four would return. Woolworth always sent a vice president from its New York headquarters to tell how the company now embraced diversity. City of Greensboro officials, so nervous during the sit-ins, would be there beaming.

Memories are dimming about the way things used to be in Greensboro and the South. Men and women under the age of 40 have no memory of the sit-ins, or of the strict segregation that defined every aspect of life.

Today, young people looked astonished when told that at the old city hall on Greene Street, two side-by-side water fountains stood in the corridor one for whites, the other for blacks.

Some black parents kept their children from going downtown and being exposed to such a degrading social system. Others, like Ezell Blair Jr., who now goes by the name Jibreel Khazan, showed at an early age that he wasn't afraid to go against the social order.

Segregation's pervasiveness was such that black people couldn't escape it. Joseph McNeil got off a bus at Union Station downtown in January 1960, returning from a visit to his home in Wilmington over the Christmas vacation. He was hungry. The station had a restaurant. He wasn't allowed to sit down and eat.

His outrage accompanied him back to Scott Hall, where that night he and his roommate, Greensboro native David Richmond, gathered with McCain and another Greensboro native, Blair, both of whom bunked down the hall. Since entering school the previous autumn, they had held on-going gripe sessions in their Scott Hall rooms about life in the South.

"I was getting tired of just talking about it," McCain says, "and McNeil said he was, too."

Many times they had attacked previous generations of black people, including their own parents and university administrators, for what the four perceived as a weak response to segregation. McCain told his friends by just talking and doing nothing, they were no better.

Potential targets for protest were plentiful, from the city buses, where black people had to ride in the rear, to the county jail, where separate cells were reserved for black inmates.

The four freshmen selected Woolworth. They especially resented the company's double standard. Everywhere but in the South, black and white patrons sat together at Woolworth counters. In Greensboro, not only was the counter segregated, but so was the staff behind it and in the kitchen upstairs. Waitresses were white; those who fixed the food and cleaned up were black.

Black patrons could shop Woolworth's general merchandise counters and eat at a stand-up snack bar and bakery counter. But one section of the store was forbidden territory: the long L-shaped lunch counter, with stainless steel and plastic cushion stools that took up nearly two walls of the first floor.

Until 1958, Woolworth posted "colored only" and "whites only" signs in the store to guide the two races. That year, Dr. George Simkins, who had led fights in the city to desegregate municipal-owned facilities, such as tennis courts and libraries, asked Harris to remove the signs. Harris agreed to do so, but only if another downtown store did the same. Simkins said Belk Department Store up the street had made such a commitment. Harris wasn't worried about the effects of removing the signs. He knew black customers didn't need signs to know what was off limits.

The assumption in Greensboro always has been that nothing happens on the civil rights front without Simkins, local NAACP president from 1959 to 1984, knowing about it beforehand. He was a major risk-taker, having gone to jail in 1955 for trespassing at city-owned Gillespie Park Golf Course, where he and a group of black friends attempted to play a round. The governor later pardoned him.

But Simkins says the sit-ins surprised him. He had been at his office filling cavities when a reporter first called to inform him that something was happening at the Woolworth store downtown.

McCain and McNeil say no one outside the group knew of their plans, although Khazan insists that the four went to his parents' house in Greensboro the night before to tell his parents.

The three also say they didn't discuss in advance their plans with Ralph Johns, a white merchant who had long been exhorting black customers at his store on East Market Street to challenge the city's racist ways. He promised bail money to anyone who was arrested in the cause of freedom.

After the sit-ins became renowned, Johns would claim to be the father of the event. He said he coached the four on what to do at Woolworth. McCain says that's not so. While all three sit-in participants agree that Johns deserves tremendous credit for the encouragement he gave to black people during that era, they say that he had no idea what the Greensboro Four were up to until they passed his store on the way to Woolworth.

In recent years, credit for the sit-ins also has been claimed by Bennett College, the small, private women's college a few blocks from the A&T campus. According to some accounts, Willa Player, the school's president, talked several students out of staging the sit-ins.She reportedly feared they might get hurt. She asked them to let the male students at A&T go first.

McCain, McNeil and Jibreel Khazan say they had no contact with Willa Player or anyone from Bennett College prior to Feb. 1. But, they also say that after that date Bennett students were a huge help and that the college allowed its buildings to be used for strategy sessions.

The fact that the four students were acting alone made the hours leading up to Feb. 1 more miserable. They say they barely slept the night before the sit-ins started. Then they had a full day of classes on Monday. It was after 3 p.m. before Richmond, Blair and McNeil made it to the designated spot, outside Bluford Library, where they waited for McCain, who had a late Air Force ROTC class.

They walked up East Market Street, through the railroad underpass that still serves as the dividing point between the black and white communities of Greensboro. McCain wore his Air Force uniform. He says many people later asked him if this was his way of protesting the Vietnam War. Never mind, he says laughing, that serious American involvement in Vietnam hadn't even started in 1960. Others were sure the uniform was a patriotic symbol and a tactic: How could a business deny service to a young man wearing the uniform of his country? That wasn't the reason for uniform either, he says. He says he just didn't have time to go back to his room and change.

The four passed Ralph Johns' store and hinted to him that they were up to something. Johns must have figured out what was happening. He went into the store and called Jo Spivey, a reporter for The Greensboro Record, the afternoon paper.

As the four turned onto South Elm Street at Jefferson Square, McCain had awful thoughts about what might happen to him in the store whose familiar red sign was looming ahead.

"I can tell you this," he said. "I was fully prepared mentally not to ever come back to the campus. ... I thought the worst thing that could happen to us is we could have had our heads split open with a night stick and hauled into prison."

At Woolworth, the four split up in pairs and went to various counters to buy toothpaste and school supplies. The strategy was to ask why they could be served in other parts of the store, but not at the lunch counter. McNeil and McCain were the first to take seats at the counter, where about 12 white people were taking afternoon coffee breaks.

They had expected a ruckus. They encountered silence. It was as if they were invisible. Waitresses ignored them.

Geneva Tisdale, a black employee who was working behind the counter, figured the four young men were confused out-of-towners who didn't know the ways of Greensboro.

"I just thought there was somebody here from someplace else that didn't know they didn't serve blacks," she said, "so I kept on doing what I was doing."

She changed her mind when the four finally got the attention of a waitress, who told them black people weren't served at the counter. When they refused to leave, a black employee not Tisdale gave the students a lecture on how they were trouble-makers hurting race relations.

Curly Harris was next to talk to the students.

When the four men wouldn't budge from their seats, Harris hurried to the police station two blocks away to see Chief Paul Calhoun. The unflappable chief said that as long as the students behaved, he could do nothing. He did dispatch a police officer to keep an eye on the store.

Then came a sign from heaven, McCain is convinced. An elderly white woman came up to them.

"She said, 'Boys, I am just so proud of you. My only regret is that you didn't do this 10 or 15 years ago,'" McCain recalls. "Well, 10 or 15 years ago, my goodness, I was only 8 or 10 years old, but I got the message and I can tell you that that simple acknowledgment and pat on the shoulder meant more to me that day than anything else. ... I got so much pride and such a good positive feeling from that little old lady. I mean, she'll never know it, but that really made the day for us."

Back from the police station, Harris announced the store was closing early. The four students filed out, unserved but not deterred.

They told Harris they would be back the next day. Outside, on Sycamore Street, the four encountered Record photographer Jack Moebes, who carried a big, boxy Speed Graphic camera that even by 1960 was outdated. Moebes got a picture of the students walking four abreast from the store.

On the walk back to campus, McCain said he felt like he was floating.

"I've never felt so good in my life," he said. "I truly felt as though I had my going-to-the-mountaintop experience."

Back on campus that night, they rounded up leaders of student groups and held a meeting in the basement of Dudley Building. The four sought pledges of help the next day. Instead, they had to explain themselves. No one believed what they had done.

The four finally managed to convince the majority present that this was no joke. Many in the room pledged to join them the next day.

All of two people showed up to join the original four at the store. They sat from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. They were not served. Several white people heckled them. But again, they left unharmed and without being arrested. Channel 2 sent a cameraman. The Daily News and The Record had reporters present. Once the news hit the TV, radio and the newspapers, A&T students embraced the movement. Each day after that, more and more joined the original four. By that Saturday, students from A&T and Bennett, joined by sympathetic white students from UNCG, Greensboro College and Guilford College, occupied every seat at the counter.

Curly Harris was outraged. He could see sales figures plummeting. Geneva Tisdale was scared. Some rough-looking white people had started coming to the store to heckle the protesters. She heard some were Ku Klux Klan members. She was expecting a baby and was fearful of what stress might do to her pregnancy. The lunch counter manager, Rachel Holt, sent Tisdale upstairs to the kitchen so she wouldn't be exposed to ugliness. Finally, with the counter virtually shut down because of the sit-ins, Tisdale's boss sent her home.

In addition to occupying seats inside, students formed picket lines along South Elm and Sycamore streets to discourage people from shopping at Woolworth and Kress. A white kid threw a stink bomb onto the line and then ran. McNeil, who was working that day as a picket line monitor, chased him into a department store down the street.

The city created a committee, headed by Burlington Industries executive Ed Zane, to mediate the stand-off and to discuss segregation in the downtown. The Greensboro Four would say later that Zane turned out to be a hero, along with his boss, Spencer Love, the founder of Burlington Industries. Love was determined that the violence he saw in other Southern cities wasn't going to happen in Greensboro.

Finally, Woolworth and Kress agreed to integrate. It was a humanitarian and a business decision, Curly Harris says.

The Greensboro Four wouldn't have the honor of eating the first meal at the integrated counter. Geneva Tisdale and two other black kitchen workers at Woolworth were the first. Holt, the counter manager, told them to wear their Sunday best. Tisdale remembers ordering a egg salad sandwich and a soda. The egg salad was good because she had made it herself earlier that morning. She regrets there were no cameras in the store to record the history.

"They never knew that it was Woolworth girls that was the first to sit at the counter to be served after they opened it up," she said.

The Greensboro Four returned to their studies. All but Richmond went on to earn degrees. The three survivors are called on constantly for interviews that turn up in articles and books and documentaries. They say they never expected to become celebrities and that it has its drawbacks. People constantly ask McCain what have you done for the human race lately.

McCain says he feels better about America today than he did in 1960. He says he loves his country so much that he wants to kiss the ground after he returns from business trips abroad. McNeil says he believes in the fundamental goodness of people, white and black.

He fought for civil rights in the 1960s and then fought again as an Air Force officer during the Vietnam War later in the decade.

"This is my country," he says. "I not only fought for it, I fought for the chance to make it right. No one's going to deny me the opportunity. I am going to be a full participant in every aspect of this community, as well as my kids."

If you would like to make a monetary contribution to the The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, promoting the cause of civil rights championed by the A&T Four and countless others, visit their website.
Greensboro News & Record, Greensboro, NC © 2016 BH Media Group, Inc.