Fifty years ago, four men stood up by sitting down
By Martha Waggoner, The Associated Press
Picture: The lunch counter at the former F.W.
Woolworth is preserved at the International Civil
Press / Chuck Burton
"Nothing has ever happened to me since then that topped
that good feeling of being clean and fully accepted and
feeling proud of me." -- Joseph McNeil, one of four
college students who sat at a
counter on Feb. 1, 1960
quietly into a
afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the
"whites only" lunch counter -- and sparked a wave of
civil rights protest that changed
Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin
McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David
silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The black
students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous
act. Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously
planned, down to buying a few school supplies and
toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the
lunch counter was the only part of the store where
racial segregation still ruled.
"The best feeling of my life," McCain said, was
"sitting on that dumb stool."
"I felt so relieved," he added. "I felt so at peace and
so self- accepted at that very moment. Nothing has ever
happened to me since then that topped that good feeling
of being clean and fully accepted and feeling proud of me."
They weren't afraid, even though they had no way of
knowing how the sit-ins would end. What they did know
was this: They were tired, they were angry and they
were ready to change the world.
The number of protesters mushroomed, reaching at least
1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were
occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six
The sit-in led to the formation in
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became
the cutting edge of the student direct-action civil
rights movement. The demonstrations between 1960 and
1965 helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965
Voting Rights Act.
America around," says Bill Chafe,
historian and author of "Civilities and Civil Rights:
On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative
will open on the site of the
store. The dining room is still there, with two
counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica
because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to
three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the
original stools and counter remain where the four sat
and demanded service.
The building remains because two men -- county
commissioner Skip Alston and city council member Earl
Jones -- arranged to buy it in 1993 for $700,000 from a
bank that planned to turn the space into a parking lot.
"It is my fervent wish, hope and desire that this great
edifice ... will be a grand monument to the struggle of
all people who strive for freedom," said Blair -- now
named Jibreel Khazan -- in a telephone interview. He
took the new name in 1968 and has worked as a teacher,
counselor, motivational speaker and storyteller.
McCain went on to become a research chemist and sales
executive, while McNeil retired as a two-star major
general from the Air Force Reserves in 2001 and also
worked as an investment banker.
The four freshmen at N.C.
part of an NAACP youth group started by Ella Baker,
known as the mother of SNCC. They spent much of the
fall semester discussing how to fulfill the promise of
the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Other sit-ins had occurred. But they didn't catch fire
the way the one in
The time was right, Chafe says: Six years had passed
since the Brown decision, but little had changed. And
the place was right as well:
believed theirs was a progressive city and they
wouldn't stomach brutality.
The sit-ins that changed
movement was energized by these '60s-era protests.
by Andrew B. Lewis
The "sixties" were born on Feb. 1, 1960, 50 years ago
this week, when four African American college students
staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter
'60s has dominated the idea of youthful activism.
Of the three big events of the early civil rights
movement -- the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education
decision, the 1955-56
sit-ins -- the sit-ins have always been the least
understood and, yet, the most important for today's
We forget how troubled the civil rights movement was in
January 1960. It was six years after Brown, but fewer
than 1 in 100 black students in the South attended an
integrated school. And during the four years after the
end of the bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr.
struggled to build on that victory. Many worried that
the civil rights movement had ground to a halt. Then
In the time before Twitter, the rapid spread of the
sit-ins was shocking. The first sit-in was an impulsive
act, led by college students. They spread to
more than 70 cities and towns in eight weeks. By
summer, more than 50,000 people had taken part in one.
At the time, this was not just the largest black
protest against segregation ever; it was the largest
outburst of civil disobedience in American history. The
sit-ins rewrote the rules of protest. They were
remarkably egalitarian: Everyone participated; everyone
was in equal danger. And they went viral because they
were easy to copy. All one needed for a sit-in was some
friends and a commitment to a few simple principles of
Most important, the sit-ins were designed to highlight
the immorality of segregation by forcing Southern
policemen to arrest polite, well-dressed college
students sitting quietly just trying to order a shake
or a burger. The students believed deeply in Thoreau's
idea that the only place for a just person in an unjust
society is jail.
The contrast with King's early efforts was stark. He
had worked hard during the bus boycott to prevent
arrests. To his thinking, only protests that remained
within the bounds of the law could win the war against
Jim Crow. The NAACP similarly believed in the power of
the courts to end school segregation. But such efforts
were so bureaucratic that ordinary African Americans
often felt more like observers than participants.
To their African American contemporaries, the college
students seemed the unlikeliest group to revive the
civil rights movement. Just three years earlier, E.
Franklin Frazier, the eminent black sociologist, had
condemned them for believing that "money and
conspicuous consumption are more important than
knowledge." What did Frazier miss?
He failed to see how the comfort of postwar affluence
and popular culture bred agitation and activism as
easily as it did indifference and apathy. The sit-ins
owed more to Little Richard and Levi's than to Jesus
and the Bible.
Youth culture in the '50s often made it seem that
generation mattered more than race. After all, weren't
African American couples sharing the dance floor with
white ones on the hit teen show "American Bandstand"?
Yet, in their everyday lives, black teens still felt
the sting of segregation. The first thing the
Woolworth's was to purchase some school supplies at the
store. If their money was good enough for pencils, why
weren't they good enough to have a seat at the counter?
To many Americans, the sit-ins were unnerving. In a
protests hurt the civil rights movement. Black elders
such as King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins tried to
control the sit-ins by co-opting the students as junior partners.
The students instead formed their own organization, the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC soon
emerged as the most dynamic, creative and influential
civil rights organization in the '60s. It produced a
generation of black leaders, including John Lewis,
Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael,
Barry and dozens of others.
SNCC took the movement to the most violent reaches of
of arrests and the willingness to risk beatings --
forced the confrontation with racial segregation that
compelled congressional intervention. The great
milestones of the movement -- the freedom rides,
tactical innovation of the sit-ins. King may have
stirred the nation's soul with the movement's poetry,
but SNCC moved it to action with the prose of its
Fifty years later, my students tend to see SNCC's
members as mythic figures, a "greatest generation" of
activists whose achievements they cannot equal. But I
remind them of what they have in common with the SNCC
generation. Both have been condemned by adults for
their materialism, pop culture and assumed political
apathy. Both grew up in a period of relative prosperity
that left them comfortable but also unsatisfied. Both
came of age when new forms of communication -- TV then,
the Internet now -- unsettled politics.
There are many lessons from the sit-ins relevant to the
lives of today's young people. Before it was a bumper
sticker, SNCC lived out the true meaning of "think
globally, act locally." But the most important lesson
is to stop looking at the '60s as the manual for modern
activism. What made the sit-ins so powerful is how they
broke away from the prevailing wisdom to create a new
model for change. Look forward, not back, I tell them.
It's not your parents' movement anymore.
Andrew B. Lewis is the author of "The Shadows of
Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation."
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