“With their very bodies they obstructed the wheels of injustice”
Fifty years ago in Greensboro, North Carolina, four freshmen from the local Agricultural and Technical College started a peaceful sit-in that changed American history. On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Ezell Blair, Jr (now known as Jibreel Khazan) entered a F. W. Woolworth’s in Greensboro. The store was integrated for customers to shop, but the lunch counter was for whites only. Blacks had to stand and eat.
The four teens bought a few small items (toothpaste, school supplies, etc.) at one counter and received a receipt for their purchases. Then they took their seats at the lunch counter and ordered coffee. They were refused service. They remained until the store closed. The next morning, they returned with twenty-five students to continue the protest. There were reportedly twice the number on the next day, and on the fourth day, they were joined by three white female students. Day five saw over 300 demonstrators at the store.
For the first few days, the situation had been tense but peaceful. Negotiations failed and at one point, 45 demonstrators were arrested for trespassing. Then a bomb-scare caused the closing of the store for two weeks.
The sit-ins launched a massive boycott of stores across the South that had segregated lunch counters. At Woolworth’s, sales dropped one-third and after six months, the owners gave in. The original four freshmen returned to the counter and were served on July 25, 1960.
This incident brought about the creation of SNCC – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led to partial integration before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lunch counter is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The 50th anniversary on February 1, 2010, witnessed the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in the same building, although the Woolworth’s store is no longer there.