They made history 63 years ago today!
On February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T University students — Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil — staged the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, History.com reports. The protest took place at Woolworth’s lunch counter, the group motivated by other nonviolent protest techniques spreading across the globe and the murder of Emmett Till just a few years prior. Now known as The Greensboro Four, the young men planned out all the details of their protest, partnering with a local white businessman named Ralph Johns to help execute it.
Just as they sat down at the lunch counter, Johns alerted the local media who arrived just as police were showing up to detain them. However, without provocation, the police couldn’t make an arrest. The media showed up in droves and the four stayed at the lunch counter until the store closed. The following day, they returned with even more college students. The sit-ins lasted for more than 5 months with thousands of students participating nationwide. The protests proved effective and by July, many restaurants were integrating.
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Today, Woolworth’s in Greensboro serves as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, preserving the work of Blair, Richmond, McCain, and McNeil and educating the masses on the origins of one of the most powerful civil rights movements ever. In honor of the anniversary of that very first sit-in, here is why the Greensboro sit-ins were such a pivotal moment in Black history:
The sit-ins brought civil rights protests to the national stage.
Civil rights protests advocating for integration had been occurring, with organizers like Pauli Murray staging sit-ins as early as 1943 and groups like the Congress for Racial Equity (CORE) organizing bus rides across the South in 1947 as a response to the Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate bus travel.
However, the Greensboro sit-ins were effective because of the students’ early strategy of getting media outlets involved. By making that decision, they heightened the stakes and brought the conversation outside of their individual city and state, inspiring other young students to participate and sparking a nationwide movement.
They also spurred the creation of SNCC.
What started out as four quickly turned into 300 and before you knew it, the movement was happening in 55 cities and 13 states. This wildfire among young people willing to answer the call to action was all the momentum needed to spur the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina in April of 1960.
SNCC went on to be one of the key organizations in spearheading the civil rights movement, eventually partnering with other organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to galvanize efforts.
It helped reinforce the validity of nonviolence as a viable means of protest.
While many of the youth were arrested during the sit-ins and charged with crimes like disorderly conduct, trespassing, or disturbing the peace, the sit-in protests were a simple and accessible way to engage local communities in protest. Every city had prominent locations that were segregated and could be accessed; the methodology for protest was pretty straightforward and with the added media attention, it was the perfect display of nonviolent protest.
The sit-ins forced the issue of integration.
By the summer of 1960, restaurants across the South were being integrated as a result of the sit-ins. The protests proved to be massively effective and while many college students were on vacation, Woolworth’s followed suit, quietly integrating its lunch counter as well. Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Best were the four Black Woolworth’s employees who were the first to be served.
Thank you to all the protestors for their sacrifice! Happy Black History Month!
Here’s why the Greensboro sit-in was a pivotal moment in Black history. Photo Courtesy of Jack Moebes/Corbis/Smithsonian Magazine