Greensboro Sit-In Protests Begin: February 1, 1960

On February 1, 1960, four young African-American men entered the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat down at the segregated lunch counter and refused to leave after being denied service.

Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. (later Jibreel Khazan), and Franklin McCain, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his doctrine of using non-violent protests as a way to achieve social and political progress.

After purchasing a few small items at Woolworth’s, the young men proceeded to the lunch counter with receipt in hand. Instead of heading to the standing snack bar where they were normally relegated, they sat at the lunch counter designated “whites only.”

After taking a seat, the young men politely waited for service. Someone called the police, but segregation at the lunch counter was a social custom and not a law. The men were paying customers and couldn’t be arrested.

The next day the Greensboro Four returned to Woolworth’s again. This time accompanied by additional African-American students. In subsequent days the numbers of protestors increased. By the fifth day, some 1,000 protestors joined in. The sit-in protests made nationwide headlines. Similar protests spread across the country, occurring in nine states and 54 cities.

The bold actions of the Greensboro Four took courage. It had been six years since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling had passed, eliminating separate but equal – but little had changed. Their protest led to a student-led civil rights movement. As the movement spread, so did the need to organize.

In April, under the direction of Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a meeting for sit-in protestors. King told attendees that protests were a civil right and not a social privilege, and he urged protesters to refrain from violence. Sadly, the civil rights movement was marred by violence.  Felton Turner, 27, was abducted by four masked white men, strung up by his heels and beaten with a chain. His attackers carved letters into his chest with a penknife before he was able to escape. He was one of many who endured attacks.

Six months after the sit-ins started, protestors achieved a measure of success when on July 25th, the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter opened to all diners – black or white.

In 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the original protest, the building that once housed the Greensboro Woolworth’s reopened as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Part of the original lunch counter where the Greensboro Four sat down in February 1960 is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

To read more articles about the sit-in protests or the civil rights movement, see our archives and visit our civil rights topic page on Newspapers.com.

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39 thoughts on “Greensboro Sit-In Protests Begin: February 1, 1960

  1. Would you want to put a wolf and a sheep next to each other without knowing their characteristics? The person who does that has to assume responsibility when things ‘go south’ which it will real fast.

    If you read further into your own article it says that it’s a ‘social custom’ not a law which is why they were not arrested meaning the store has the right to separate if it will prevent in store fights.

    The last thing the store owner wants is to fuel the fires.

    • This must be one of the most ignorant analogy’s that I have seen to an article. Sheep and a Wolf? What’s that supposed to mean? And the acceptance of pure racialism as a “social custom” rather adds to the feeling that you are not going to be in the front line when it comes to standing up to human rights!

    • Black people = homo sapiens. White people = homo sapiens. I think we all know our characteristics, SortingHat. The words racist and bigot spring to mind, closely followed by ignorant.

    • They didn’t insist on separating the races to prevent fights if they had they would have kicked the whites out remember it was the whites who assaulted the black guys .the blacks were completely peaceful. No the owners and staff were just bigots who didn’t want those who they considered inferior in there store. Either that or they weren’t brave enough to stand up to the racists.

    • Your comparison proves how much racism is still in America today. Most people live with their heads in the ground as far as racial discrimination and racism still rampant in the US today. But posts like the one you just made only makes people take their heads out of the ground and see the truth. Thank you for your most racist post because you prove a very valid point. Some white people are just as ignorant as ever. I said SOME, not all. To say that all white people are alike would give the assumption that all black people are alike, that all women are alike, that all men are alike, that all children are alike…and so on. You truly show the world that black people are very special people, if you are that afraid of them. When I think about it, I realize that no group of people have been hated and feard as much as Blacks and Jews. I wonder why, don’t you. Maybe because……..God loves us all regardless of race, color, sex, or church preference. And because we all have the same red blood running through our veins. How can anyone in this day and time still want to have slaves. Maybe it’s called “Laziness”.

  2. However even under whites and blacks being separate it shouldn’t mean one gets better service then the other. Both should be treated with respect on their sides.

    Both races are paying customers so whichever side you sit on you deserve equal service as long as you obey the store rules and don’t do things to get you thrown out. 🙂

    • Why should there be any “side”???
      We are all the same in God’s eyes. This makes my blood boil !!

      • Thank you for this.
        One intelligent reply to this article.
        We are all human regardless of the colour of our skin.
        What really makes my blood boil is the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the land. When is Indigenous history month? When do we learn about The Trail of Tears, the taking of Indigenous lands and broken promises.
        Oh yeah, we don’t talk about that.

  3. Wow. The whole idea of one person is better than another is heart wrenching. We all come from Adam and Eve.

    • actually we all come from Africa. Race is a social construct. In reality it does not exist.

  4. That happened on my 6th birthday. I can remember it only because my mom mentioned it. She thought that the practice of separating races was wrong. I grew up in the north so all of this behavior was foreign to me. Where I lived we had no Negroes as they were called then. All I knew was that God made them a different color. I watched as history unfolded as the protests continued to grow. I couldn’t understand how skin color should affect behavior towards others. More than anything else, I was curious to learn what made us different. Fifty-nine years later I have determined we all desire the same things. Yes there are some cultural differences. But that can be found among even folks with the same pigments. I’ll never try lutefisk, limburger cheese, blood sausage, or polenta. But I will try Mexican, Chinese, and foods from other countries. It is attitude and the understanding that it is what one projects towards others in character and the content in one’s heart.
    The simple song I sang in Sunday school comes to mind, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It is so sad that that simple lesson is lost as some folks age and fail to see how the barnacles of fear and hatred begin to slow their thinking and judgements.

    • Randall, thanks for that inspirational note. It’s shocking to see what the social norms were just 60 years ago – we’ve come a long way. As some of the posts here confirm, we still have a long way to go. I too grew up with that Sunday school song, and hope that it helps drive as much change in the future as it did in the past.

    • Randall, I too grew up with that song. However I grew up in a portion of the South.
      From everything I have heard, read, studied and experienced people are just people no matter their pigment.
      I lived thru on front lines of the East LA Riots and the Watts Riots. Innocent people were hurt and criminal mentality was experienced.

      My first recommendation would be to drop this African-American, Mexican-American, Chinese-American, etc. We are Americans or we are living in another country.
      All of us have ancestors from another country, that is our heritage that we may personally honor a d cherish or not as we choose.

      Treat everyone as equal. We do not have to like the personality of anyone else. We can choose our friends. Give everyone else the same respect.
      Our society seems to promote each individual selecting an underdog. Are we really that insecure.

      It is very rewarding to live a Happy Life and to refute that Anger.
      Color other or wealth do not make these happen. TRY GOD

  5. Randall’s post made me cry. If only everyone felt that way what a country this would be.

    • Thank you, Monica. Your mind comment tells me that you felt my heart. God bless you.

  6. I wasn’t served at the Trailways Bus Stop in Arizona when we stopped for lunch. It was the Summer of 1967 and I was wearing my uniform because soldiers were offered a discounted bus fare. I sat there alone in my booth while everyone else ate. Everyone else was white. There were some Mexican passengers, but they ate their lunch outside. I don’t remember if I hailed a waitress, but the bus was leaving and so thus ended my sit-in.

    • First of all, thank you for your service. I’m not a rich man, but I would have bought you a meal if I was old enough and there in 1967. But I wasn’t, sadly. I certainly hope that what you experienced then was turned into a positive lesson of hope and that love is better than the poison of hatred. Reading your words tells me that you are a great American and a true brother. God bless you and your offspring.

    • Serving all lunch counter customers establishes neutral and equal, not fueling the fire. In a better world, which sit-ins advanced, any polite person receives polite service.

    • I have witnessed incidents and spoken to cooks and waiters over the years. As a blonde, I feel added responsibility to act. My first integration attempt was with my friends if various ethnicities in LA. at Hinshaws lunch room. I remember because the little ladies there called the waitress over and threatened a boycott if “those young people” were not served. We were served. I saw concentration camp tattoos at the edge of those ladies’ white gloves. I was 13. I still stand up for you.

    • Phillipp, Thank you for serving our country. It was so sad to hear of your experience and to think it happened as late as 1967. I had thought by then our society was beginning to come around more for the better regarding race relations, apparently in the Southwest that wasn’t to come as of yet. And to think that the Summer of 1967 was known as the “Summer of Love”. Evidently there wasn’t much of that love in Arizona. Hopefully you haven’t encountered any more incidents such as this since that time, and all the best to you and yours.

    • Phillipp, thank you for your service!
      May I ask if you were able to use your GI Bill to further your education or help purchase a home? I surely hope you were. Or, were the prejudice, unfair folks against that as they were for most blacks? So sorry.

    • The stupidest thing I’ve ever heard was how during ww2 some places especially in the south would serve German POWs on work detail but wouldn’t serve black American soldiers and sailors.

  7. Sorting Hat, your analogy of a wolf and a sheep makes no sense. These are human beings in this situation, not animals. Where do you get your so-called information that the diner had this rule in order to prevent fights (the rule being that blacks must stand, whites are allowed to sit). Anyone with half a mind knows that is not why the diner made that rule. It’s all about the entitlement issue of white’s feeling they were the only ones good enough to be allowed to take front seats in the diner. I can almost hear the snide comments made by whites seeing a black person in the diner with them, and under their breath but just loud enough for it to be heard, and just soft enough to deny saying it.

  8. My first encounter with segregated restrooms was in the DC airport. I needed to go to the bathroom badly when I got off the airplane. I saw a men’s bathroom and in I went. I did not notice that it said “colored”. When I finished and turned around, I got a lot of stares from the black men in the rest room. I said, “Hey, when you gotta go you don’t get picky”. I got a lot of smiles as I walked out.

    While in Virginia for some four years, I often went acoss eh Beridge from Newport News to Surry County. The hams, chickens and watermelons were excellent. I soon began chatting with the black farmers. IN a short while, I discovered that they were ordinary people just like me. I extended my visits with those folks because they spoke of the same things I had heard from all white farmers in Idaho. I learned my lesson by then that people are people regardless of race.

  9. Sorting Hat has a non-empathetic take, for sure. If the store management saw the injustice of this “social custom” they would’ve taken a stand against it themselves. But they weren’t brave enough, or didn’t care – subscribing to the prejudice of the general community anyway. As it seems possible that Sorting Hat may, in the insensitive, false analogy presented.
    I live in AZ & am embarrassed by what happened to Philipp. Much has changed here since that time, especially in urban areas. But, sad to say, rural – not so much. I live rural & witness it. It sickens me.
    It takes people as brave as the young men in this news article, & those that followed to change things. Unfortunately, change for the good comes so slowly.

  10. Sorting Hat needs some sorting in his/her thought process. Glad most of us have evolved from any ingrained prejudices passed down from parents, grandparents. Prejudice is learned behavior. So is tolerance and inclusion. Life is so much more interesting embracing others with different backgrounds. I hope Sorting Hat learns this while still on this Earth.
    My mother’s grandfather was murdered by a “Negro” in 1930 in VA, but I watched my mother evolve as she recognized the dreadful inequalities of the races, and by the ‘60s was sympathetic to the civil rights movement and, in fact, helped elect the city’s first Black mayor. Why? Because he was better qualified. I thank my mother for thinking clearly and for informing and enriching my life because of it.

  11. As a fifth generation San Franciscan and a Jesuit educated, and now Professor Emeritus, octogenarian, I and my sons share the perspective that Randall has expressed so positively. It is discouraging that our nation experiences so much divisiveness over the last two decades but time, education, and enhanced well-being should bring welcome trust and communication with “liberty and justice for all.” AMDG.

  12. Growing up in South Carolina, I had no real exposure to blacks in my midsize city. I knew my next door neighbor’s maid, the janitor at my dad’s place of work and the janitor’s brother who was a mechanic there. By the time I graduated from high school, we still had only a dozen or so black students at my alma mater which was at the time the largest high school in the state. It wasn’t until the next year that the schools were fully integrated.

    Even in college, I had limited exposure to black students. During my first job after college, I got a rude awakening when I was talking to my black supervisor about getting into one of the local theaters on Saturday mornings with 6 Coca-Cola bottle caps. When I asked if he remembered doing that, he looked at me and said “Ron, I couldn’t get into the Carolina Theater!”

    I only wish that I had done more in my youth to foster better race relations in my hometown. Unfortunately I wasn’t much of an activist. i’m glad that those four were.

    We aren’t yet where we need to be as a society but we have definitely made progress.

  13. I am 63 years old and was raised in a 99 percent black neighborhood.
    I know what racism is and it was a living nightmare.

  14. It makes me mad as a wet hen…as well as very sad… when I read about racial injustices imposed on any human being. Blessings to those who peacefully put themselves as risk to make a difference. We can’t change history, but we can learn by our mistakes and make a positive difference as we move forward. One small change might be to eliminate questions on any government form that asks about one’s skin color or ethnicity. In response to that question, I write in capital letters:
    AMERICAN.

  15. Why did it take the store owners so long to concede peoples civil rights.They were happy to take their money for snacks and goods but not prepared to treat people equally.

  16. As an 18 year old girl in 1960, I enlisted in the Marine Corp. On the train ride to Parris Island there was a stopover in Washington, DC. A place I consider “North” as opposed to “South”. I was appalled when I entered a small restaurant to get a bite to eat. They did serve black people – but they had to take their food out to the sidewalk to eat. As I was leaving, there were some black children playing on the sidewalk. Two grown white men left the restaurant ahead of my companion and myself. These men chased the children and called them names. One of these men actually kicked one of the children. Being the person I am – I berated these bigots. They then threatened me . My companion grabbed me and made me run away from them. It has been a very sad memory for me. My siblings and I were raised to treat all people with respect, and to judge them by their character not their color or ethnicity.

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