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Taking a Seat for Justice

Reflecting on the success of historic 1960s sit-ins

3/21/2013, 10:26 a.m.

GREENSBORO, N.C. – The four college freshmen walked quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the “Whites only” lunch counter – and sparked a wave of civil rights protest that changed America.

Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat near an older White woman on the silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The Black students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous act. Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously planned, down to buying a few school supplies and toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the lunch counter was the only part of the store where racial segregation still ruled.

“The best feeling of my life,” McCain said, was “sitting on that dumb stool.”

“I felt so relieved,” he added. “I felt so at-peace and so self-accepted at that very moment. Nothing has ever happened to me since then that topped that good feeling of being clean and fully accepted and feeling proud of me.”

They weren’t afraid, even though they had no way of knowing how the sit-ins would end. What they did know was this: They were tired, they were angry and they were ready to change the world.

The number of protesters mushroomed daily, reaching at least 1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.

The sit-in led to the formation in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became the cutting edge of the student direct-action civil rights movement. The demonstrations between 1960 and 1965 helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Greensboro was the pivot that turned the history of America around,” says Bill Chafe, Duke University historian and author of Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.

On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store. The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.

The building remains because two men – County Commissioner Skip Alston and city council member Earl Jones – arranged to buy it in 1993 for $700,000 from a bank that planned to turn the space into a parking lot.“

It is my fervent wish, hope and desire that this great edifice ... will be a grand monument to the struggle of all people who strive for freedom,” said Blair – now named Jibreel Khazan – in a telephone interview. He took the new name in 1968 and has worked as a teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and storyteller.