Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fifty year anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins

Fifty years ago, four men stood up by sitting down


By Martha Waggoner, The Associated Press


Sarasota (FL) Herald Tribune - January 31, 2010


Picture: The lunch counter at the former F.W.

Woolworth is preserved at the International Civil

Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C.Associated

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 Greensboro, N.C., lunch

counter on Feb. 1, 1960


GREENSBORO, N.C. - The four college freshmen walked

quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday

afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the

"whites only" lunch counter -- and sparked a wave of

civil rights protest that changed America.


Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin

McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David

Richmond sat near an older white woman on the

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

months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was



The sit-in led to the formation in Raleigh of the

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.


"Greensboro was the pivot that turned the history of

America around," says Bill Chafe, Duke University

historian and author of "Civilities and Civil Rights:

Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom."


On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative

day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum

will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth

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. Richmond died in 1990.


The four freshmen at N.C. A&T State University were

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 Greensboro did.


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: Greensboro's white leaders

believed theirs was a progressive city and they

wouldn't stomach brutality.


The sit-ins that changed America The civil rights

movement was energized by these '60s-era protests.


by Andrew B. Lewis


Los Angeles Times - January 31, 2010 Op-Ed Column


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

in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, the mythology of the

'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 Montgomery bus boycott and the

sit-ins -- the sit-ins have always been the least

understood and, yet, the most important for today's

young activists.


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

Greensboro changed everything.


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 Nashville,

Atlanta, Miami, Durham, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. --

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

nonviolent protest.


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

Greensboro Four did before starting their sit-in at

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

1961 Gallup Poll, 57% of those who responded said the

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, Marion

Barry and dozens of others.


SNCC took the movement to the most violent reaches of

the Deep South. Its aggressive tactics -- the courting

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,

Freedom Summer, Selma, Birmingham -- grew from the

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

grass-roots organizing.


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."


Copyright c 2010, The Los Angeles Times


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