How the Greensboro Four Sit-In Sparked a Movement
In an effort to celebrate Black History Month, Progress NC Action is highlighting prominent Black leaders from North Carolina, who have shaped our state through their contributions to arts, sciences, politics, and more.
On this day 61 years ago, four North Carolina A&T students held the first major sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement at Greensboro’s Woolworth lunch counter. Jibreel Khazan, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond’s sit-in was a watershed event in the struggle for civil rights, as their nonviolent action helped ignite a youth-led movement that challenged racial inequality nationwide.
On February 1, 1960, four Black college freshmen, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond, sat down at a “whites-only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and politely asked for service. The white waiter refused and suggested they order a take-out meal from the “stand-up” counter. But the students did not budge. The store manager then approached the men, asking them to leave. But they did not move. They also did not give up their seats when a police officer arrived and menacingly slapped his nightstick against his hand directly behind them.
While lunch counter sit-ins had taken place before, the four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University drew national attention to the cause. By simply remaining in their seats peacefully and quietly, they flummoxed the staff and left them unsure on how to enforce their “whites-only” rule. Eventually the manager closed the store early and the men left—with the rest of the customers.
“The sit-ins establish a crucial kind of leadership and organizing of young people,” says Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor. “They mean that young people are going to be one of the major driving forces in terms of how the civil rights movement is going to unfold.”
The Sit-In Movement would spread to 55 cities in 13 states, paving the way for integration across the deeply divided south.
As demonstrations spread to 13 states, the focus of the sit-ins expanded, with students not only protesting segregated lunch counters but also segregated hotels, beaches and libraries.
“The movement was “about simple dignity, respect, access, equal opportunity, and most importantly the legal and constitutional concerns,” said Prairie View A&M University History Professor Will Guzmán.
The sit-in movement is our history, and a reminder of the importance of speaking up against injustice, white supremacy and inequality — especially right now.
This month, we celebrate the courageous actions of the Greensboro Four, the hundreds of Black leaders and activists who have helped paved the way for a more fair and equal society.
May we continue to speak out against the systemic racism and legacy of centuries of disinvestment and discrimination that cause Black Americans to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and police brutality — just as millions of people of all races, colors, and creeds did so last year.