“By sitting down we were standing up for the very best in American tradition” – Martin Luther King
Influenced by the Non-Violent protest icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the Journey of Reconciliation organised by the Congress of Racial Equality, the four men executed a plan to draw attention to racial segregation in the private sector.
February 1st 1960 was D-day and the target was F. W. Woolworths Five & Dime Store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Before I move on let’s look at the courage and enormity of what happened here, their lives were at risk, this was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern states, this sit-in was a contributing factor in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), it was the inspiration behind the subsequent sit-in movement, in which 70,000 people participated, it led to stores including F. W. Woolworth abandoning segregation policies.
On that momentous day when they were refused service and told that Woolworths do not serve Negroes at their lunch counter. The four men had anticipated problems and bought small items and retained the receipt as proof of purchase, and proof they were paying customers of Woolworths, before sitting down at the store’s lunch counter.
While Blacks were allowed to patronise the dining area, they were relegated to a standing snack bar, as the lunch counter was designated for ‘Whites only’. The Greensboro Four politely requested service at the counter, remaining seated while their orders were refused by the waiting staff.
The lunch counter manager contacted the police, but Johns had already alerted the local media. The police arrived, only to declare that they could do nothing because the four men were paying customers of the store and had not taken any provocative actions.
The last person to approach the Greensboro Four on that first day was an elderly White lady, who rose from her seat in the counter area and walked over toward McCain. She sat down next to him and looked at the four students and told them she was disappointed in them. McCain, in his Air Force ROTC uniform was ready to defend his actions, but remained calm and asked the woman:
“Ma’am, why are you disappointed in us for asking to be served like everyone else?” McCain recalled the woman looking at them, putting her hand on Joe McNeil’s shoulder and saying, “I’m disappointed it took you so long to do this”.
The four sat there until the store closed, however the next day they returned with 20 more Black students and the media interest began. By days 3 and 4 more students joined them including White students and females, over 300 participated causing the sit-in to spill out onto the streets. Lunch staff continued to refuse service, and North Carolina’s official chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, George Dorsett, as well as other members of the Klan, were present.
The F.W. Woolworth national headquarters said that the company would ‘abide by local custom’ and maintain its segregation policy.
On February 5th things turned much darker when the Klan organised 50 White men to occupy positions in the store in opposition to the students creating a tense situation. In spite of this by 3pm there were 300 protesters. The protesters maintained their dignified non-violent stance under extreme harassment, physical violence and having the dining counter condiments (salt, sauces etc.) poured over their heads. Meeting between students, college officials, and store representatives took place, but failed to find a resolution. In truth by now there could only be one resolution, de-segregation.
The protests now were getting world attention – February 6th was viewed with anticipation, fear and trepidation, with good reason, but none the less over 1,000 protesters turned up for the Sit-in.
A bomb threat was sent to the store for 1.30pm that day and Woolworths had to be evacuated and closed. However it was too late to stop the sit-in protest which was now spreading across many American southern cities and states including Kentucky, Richmond, Lexington, and Nashville. In March President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed his concern for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights, 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”.
The action of the Greensboro Four on February 1 was an incredible act of courage, but it wasn’t unique. There had been previous sit-ins. In 1957, for instance, seven African Americans staged one at the segregated Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, North Carolina. What made Greensboro different was how it grew from a courageous moment to a revolutionary movement. The combination of organic and planned ingredients came together to create an unprecedented youth activism that changed the direction of the Civil Rights Movement and the nation itself. The results of this complex and artful recipe are difficult to faithfully replicate. Besides the initial, somewhat spontaneous February 1 act of courage, more components were needed.
The essential ingredient in this protest was publicity.