Our Opinion: Greensboro Four sparked movement to end segregation
Bob Jordan | AP file photo
In a Feb. 1, 1980 file photo, former North Carolina A&T students, left to right, Joseph McNeill, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Jibreel Khazan, sit at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of their historic sit-in. The four were not served in 1960, but their action launched the sit-in movement in more than nine states.
Six decades ago, four Black college students’ peaceful protest sparked a movement to end segregation in North Carolina and throughout the American South.
On the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins’ 61st anniversary, a North Carolina congressional delegation including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, introduced a resolution honoring the student demonstrators’ contributions to the cause of civil rights.
“The four young college students known as the Greensboro Four blazed a trail that ignited a movement to challenge racial inequality in public facilities throughout the segregated South,” Butterfield said in a Monday news release. “It is imperative that we learn the lessons from the past and reaffirm that ethnic and racial diversity of our country enriches us as a nation. We are always stronger together, and we must never forget in all things to demand justice and equality for all.”
Butterfield cosponsored the resolution with Reps. Alma Adams, D-Charlotte, and Kathy Manning, D-Greensboro. The latter congresswoman’s district includes the department store where the sit-in took place along with N.C. A&T University, where the four students attended college.
Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil were refused dine-in service at Greensboro’s F.W. Woolworth Co. lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960. Instead of leaving with empty stomachs, the students opted to remain in their seats in protest of the store’s segregation policy.
The sit-in wasn’t spontaneous — according to historical accounts, the Greensboro Four drew inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for nonviolent resistance and planned to return to the store and repeat the exercise until they were allowed to eat beside Woolworth’s white diners.
Supporters soon joined Blair, Richmond, McCain and McNeil, filling the store with Black would-be customers who sought only the right to equal treatment. One participant, Clarence Henderson, described the experience last year during a visit to St. John’s AME Zion Church in Wilson.
Henderson said demonstrators endured racial epithets, faced Ku Klux Klan members who turned up to intimidate them and braved a bomb threat during a marathon stretch of sit-ins lasting 176 days until Woolworth integrated the lunch counter on July 26.
“We put Jim Crow on trial,” he told Wilson worshipers, “and Jim Crow was found guilty.”
The sit-ins spread throughout North Carolina and beyond, with more than 700,000 people — young and old, Black and white — joining in passive resistance to demand fair treatment for all.
Greensboro’s sit-in led to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s formation and influenced a national campaign that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in places of public accommodation.
Thousands answered the call for justice, but four college freshmen’s fateful decision to take a stand by keeping their seats served as the impetus, providing proof that ordinary people can effect extraordinary change.
“Their courage sparked a national civil rights movement that forever changed our nation,” Manning said. “As we celebrate their legacy, we must learn from our past and fight for a future that ensures equal rights for all people.”
The House resolution not only honors the Greensboro Four; it seeks to preserve their legacy by encouraging all states to include the lunch counter sit-ins in their educational curriculum.
“We, as a nation, have a responsibility to learn from our past and work diligently to carry on the legacy of these four men by ensuring equal rights for all people — regardless of race, color or creed,” said Adams, an N.C. A&T alumna who taught in Greensboro for 40 years.
Woolworth closed in 1993 and interest in the building’s historical value saved it from demolition. In 2010, the former department store reopened as the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, ensuring future generations of change-makers could visit the sit-in site.
We thank Butterfield and his congressional colleagues for their efforts to honor the Greensboro Four and preserve their proud legacy.
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