By Jueseppi B.
Counter segment where Greensboro students staged a civil rights sit-in protest on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
The Greensboro sit-ins were a series of nonviolent protests in 1960 which led to the Woolworth’s department store chain reversing its policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States.
While not the first sit-ins of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action, leading to increased national sentiment at a crucial period in US history. The primary event took place at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
The sit-in movement used the strategy of nonviolence. As far back as 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, as they did in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. In August, 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia, library.
Former F. W. Woolworth Co. store in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of a now-famous “sit-in” protest by black college students in 1960.
Actions at Woolworth
On February 1, 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State Universtiy sat down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth’s store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. The men, later known as the Greensboro Four, ordered coffee. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the African American men at the “whites only” counter and the store’s manager asked them to leave.
The four university freshmen – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond – stayed until the store closed.
The next day, more than twenty African American students who had been recruited from other campus groups came to the store to join the sit-in. Students from Bennett College, a college for African American women in Greensboro, joined the protest. White customers heckled the black students, who read books and studied to keep busy. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service.
Newspaper reporters and a TV videographer covered the second day of peaceful demonstrations and others in the community learned of the protests. On the third day, more than 60 people came to the Woolworth’s store. A statement issued by Woolworth’s national headquarters said the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregated policy.
More than 300 people took part on the fourth day. Organizers agreed to spread the sit-in protests to include the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store.
As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Out-of-state towns like Lexington, Kentucky also saw protests.
The movement then spread to other Southern cities including Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee where the students of the Nashville Student Movement had been trained for a sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson and had already started the process when Greensboro occurred. Although the majority of these protests were peaceful, there were instances where protests became violent. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tensions rose between blacks and whites and fights broke out. Another city where sit-ins occurred was Jackson, Mississippi. Students from Tougaloo College staged a sit-in on May 28, 1963. The incident is recorded in the autobiography of one of the members in attendance, Anne Moody. Moody described the treatment of the whites who were at the counter when they sat down, as well as the formation of the mob in the store and how they managed to finally leave the store.
As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro and students began a far-reaching boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Sales at the boycotted stores dropped by a third, leading the stores’ owners to abandon their segregation policies. Black employees of Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter, on July 25, 1960. The next day, the entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike.
Despite sometimes violent reaction to the sit-ins, these demonstrations eventually led to positive results. For example, the sit-ins received significant media and government attention. When the Woolworth’s sit-in began, the Greensboro newspaper published daily articles on the growth and impact of the demonstration. The sit-ins made headlines in other cities as well, as the demonstrations spread throughout the Southern states. A Charlotte newspaper published an article on February 9, 1960, describing the state-wide sit-ins and the resulting closures of dozens of lunch counters. Furthermore, on March 16, 1960, President Eisenhower supported the students and expressed his sympathy for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights. President Eisenhower expressed his concern, saying that he was:
“deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”
In many towns, the sit-ins were successful in achieving the desegregation of lunch counters and other public places. Nashville’s students attained citywide desegregation in May, 1960.
The media picked up this issue and covered it nationwide, beginning with lunch counters and spreading to other forms of public accommodation, including transport facilities, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and even museums around the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation in public accommodations.
In 1993, a portion of the lunch counter was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, contains four chairs from the Woolworth counter along with photos of the original four protesters, a timeline of the events, and headlines from the media. The street south of the site was named February One Place, in commemoration of the date of the first Greensboro sit-in.
Woolworth Lunch Counter
Uploaded on Feb 23, 2008
A History Lost and Found video clip on the Woolworth Lunch Counter which was one of the focal points of the Civil Rights movement.
The Counter: Part 1
The Counter: Part 2
The Counter: Part 3
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