Four Greensboro Students Sat Down 56 Years Ago This Week to Stand Up for Civil Rights

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By Jennifer Fernandez

 

When marking time, 56 years doesn’t come up as especially noteworthy. No special moniker comes with it, like silver anniversary for 25 years or golden anniversary for 50 years.

 

The anniversary of Feb. 1, 1960 — especially in Greensboro, NC —is a special date.

 

This is the day when four young Black men sat down at a whites-only lunch counter to stand up for their rights, sparking sit-in protests across the South and reigniting the civil rights movement nationwide.

 

This week, 56 years later, their story is legend. The plan for peaceful civil disobedience was worked out in their A&T State University dorm.

 

“We’d had enough,” McNeil said last year at the annual sit-in breakfast at A&T. “Think about being treated like a second-class citizen, and nobody’s doing anything about it. The time was always right.”

 

The walk down Elm Street, Admonishment from a Black female server. Encouragement from two elderly white women.

 

And the photo, depicting not the four frightened freshmen who sat down at the counter one hour earlier, but the four young men who marched out to civil rights history.

 

“That walk back was probably the greatest emotional high in my life,” McCain, who died in 2014, said in 1985. “I certainly felt relieved. … I had lost a tremendous mental burden.”

 

On the second day of the sit-ins, Blair told a reporter why the quartet decided to act.

 

“It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation,” he said. “… and we decided to start here.”

 

The sit-in quickly grew, with more students joining from A&T and Bennett College, as well as some sympathetic white students from UNC-Greensboro, Greensboro College and Guilford College.

 

They encountered resistance. KKK members showed up at the store. One day, a man threw a pile of burning newspapers under a lunch-counter seat. He was arrested.

 

Still, the protests remained peaceful. But the number of participants swelled, and Woolworth decided to close the lunch counter less than a week after the first students sat down to demand service.

 

It would remain closed for more than two weeks.

 

The protests in Greensboro sparked more sit-ins nationally, spreading in just two months to 54 cities in nine states.

 

Back in Greensboro, the sit-ins brought real change by summer.

 

In July 1960, Greensboro’s Woolworth changed its policy and opened its lunch counter to both blacks and whites.

 

Contact Jennifer Fernandez at (336) 373-7064.

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