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.