Feb 3, 2020
On Feb. 1, 1960, four friends—freshmen at a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina—decided to sit down and have a cup of coffee. The “Greensboro Four”—Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr.—sat down at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter and waited.
They were refused service. Day after day, more students came in to sit and were not served. Within three days, instead of four people sitting in, it was 300. The retail chain lost money because no one was being served. Within two weeks, sit-ins spread to 15 cities in five states.
At that time, future activist Bob Moses saw a newspaper photo of the Greensboro sit-in. “The students in that picture had a certain look on their faces, sort of sullen, angry, determined. Before ... in the South [black people] had always looked on the defensive, cringing. This time they were taking the initiative.”
To try and stop sit-ins, the police beat and arrested protesters. But instead of young people doing what they were being told to do—just give up—over the next 12 months, more than 50,000 young people protested in more than a hundred cities. And they won a small gain. By the end of 1960, lunch counters were open to black people in Greensboro and many other places.
One of the organizers of the historic sit-in, Franklin McCain, is featured in a new documentary summing up how he felt at the time. “I had a sense of dignity, a sense of worth and manhood to an extent I had never felt in my life before. It was overwhelming and I had the real feeling that if life ended at that very moment, I would not have been cheated at all.”
It was not the first sit-in and it would not be the last. But THIS event, started by four friends acting together, inspired a mass movement throughout the South. What they did captured the imagination of young people, and things took off from there. For the oppressed, the possibility of revolt is always just below the surface.