The afternoon of February 1, 1960 brought four African-American college students face-to-face with destiny. This was the date on which the Greensboro sit-in started. Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair Jr. were four African-American students studying at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, and they had had enough of the segregation that existed in their small city of Greensboro, North Carolina. This paper explores the reasons for the Greensboro sit-in, how the sit-in unfolded, and how the sit-in contributed to the civil rights movement.
McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. officially began planning their non-violent protest a few days before February 1st. However, standing up for civil rights was something the foursome had always been unofficially planning, according to McNeil: “I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and even in high school, we thought about doing something like that” (Edwards, 2010). The four students had observed the segregation policies in the United States at the time, and they wanted to put forth a positive change into the world. The United States, before and around the year of 1960, was filled with high racial tension. Only a few years prior, the United States saw the Montgomery bus boycott (in which Rosa Parks famously refused to yield her “colored only” seat to white passengers) and the Little Rock Nine (in which nine African-American students were the first black students to integrate into the Arkansas public schools system). The United States, even in the 1950s and early 1960s, was still filled with racist laws that unconstitutionally segregated black people from white people. In Greensboro, North Carolina, McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. experienced this form of racism every day. They, as well as all other African-Americans in Greensboro, were not allowed to order food at lunch counters in many restaurants and food counters, even though they had the money to do so, were willing to pay, and could legally perform such an act in other states (such as New York). Having seen the effectiveness of non-violent protest in recent years and through the groundbreaking work of Martin Luther King Jr., McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. chose to stage an extended sit-in at the lunch counter of a Greensboro Woolworth’s store.
“We don’t serve Negroes here” (Gladwell, 2010). These were the words of the Woolworth’s lunch counter waitress when McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. tried to order from the “white” section of the food counter. However, the four college students had no intention of moving. Before even attempting to order from the “white” section of the lunch counter, McCain experienced the resolve that pushed the non-violent protest into a national story: “Fifteen seconds after … I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible” (Norris, 2008). McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. did not receive any food from the lunch counter that day, but the four students stayed at the counter until closing time. They returned to the counter the next day with more non-violent protesters, a third day with even more, and kept returning to protest segregation until their sit-in had turned into a national movement, appearing across multiple states in the form of over 70,000 protesters.
The Greensboro sit-in was a simply concept. Four African-American men stood up to senseless injustice in a peaceful way. Ultimately, the Greensboro sit-in resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was instrumental to the progress of the civil rights movement, and contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally denounced the very discriminatory practices McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair Jr. had protested against.
- Edwards, O. (2010, February 01). Courage at the Greensboro Lunch Counter. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/courage-at-the-greensboro-lunch-counter-4507661/
- Gladwell, M. (2010). Small Change. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell
- Norris, M. (2008, February 01). The Woolworth Sit-In That Launched a Movement. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18615556