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Sit-in leaders (from left) Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain with two others who joined them on the second day of protests at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro

Colorized photo by Gluekit. The Granger Collection

Sitting Down to Take a Stand

Sixty years ago, four black students asked to be served at an all-white lunch counter in the South and dramatically changed the civil rights movement

Just after 4 p.m. on February 1, 1960, four black college students, dressed in their Sunday best, walked into the F. W. Woolworth department store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. After buying some school supplies and other items, they sat down at the all-white lunch counter and tried to order a cup of coffee.

“We don’t serve Negroes here,” a waitress behind the counter said.

“We are going to sit here until we are served,” one of the students, Jibreel Khazan*, replied.

Khazan and his classmates—Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond—never did get served that day. But the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State, a historically black university in Greensboro, remained seated. That simple act of defiance 60 years ago would change history, inspiring a massive movement of sit-ins and other protests against segregation in scores of cities throughout the South. From that moment forward, those students would forever be known as “The Greensboro Four.”

“The spontaneous courage of those four young men, who simply decided the night before, ‘let’s do something,’ triggered a whole movement of sit-ins around the South, and supporting demonstrations in other places,” says Frye Gaillard, a historian who has written several books about the American South. “I would argue that it jump-started the civil rights movement.”

It was just after 4 p.m. on February 1, 1960. Four black college students, dressed in their Sunday best, walked into the F. W. Woolworth department store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They bought some school supplies and other items. Then they sat down at the all-white lunch counter and tried to order a cup of coffee.

“We don’t serve Negroes here,” a waitress behind the counter said.

“We are going to sit here until we are served,” one of the students, Jibreel Khazan, replied.

Khazan was with his classmates—Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond. They never did get served that day. But the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State, a historically black university in Greensboro, remained seated. That simple act of defiance 60 years ago would change history. It inspired a massive movement of sit-ins and other protests against segregation in scores of cities throughout the South. From that moment forward, those students would forever be known as “The Greensboro Four.”

“The spontaneous courage of those four young men, who simply decided the night before, ‘let’s do something,’ triggered a whole movement of sit-ins around the South, and supporting demonstrations in other places,” says Frye Gaillard, a historian who has written several books about the American South. “I would argue that it jump-started the civil rights movement.”

1619

This article is part of Upfront’s ongoing series about the African American experience, inspired by The New York Times’ 1619 Project.

The Granger Collection

A tense atmosphere prevailed outside the Woolworth’s during the sit-ins.

The Jim Crow South

Six years before the Greensboro sit-ins, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, overturning the “separate but equal” principle that had been established by the Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. In addition, the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, led by Martin Luther King Jr., prompted a Supreme Court decision barring segregation on public buses (see timeline, below).

But by the end of the 1950s, most public facilities in the South were still segregated—and rarely equal. State and local legislation known as Jim Crow laws remained on the books, and “Whites Only” signs were plastered above lunch counters, water fountains, waiting rooms, and bathrooms, and in restaurants and hotels across the region.

Six years before the Greensboro sit-ins, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the “separate but equal” principle that had been established by the Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. In addition, Martin Luther King Jr., led the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1950s. The boycotts prompted a Supreme Court decision barring segregation on public buses (see timeline, below).

But by the end of the 1950s, most public facilities in the South were still segregated. And they were rarely equal. State and local legislation known as Jim Crow laws remained on the books. There were “Whites Only” signs in many public places. These signs were plastered above lunch counters, water fountains, waiting rooms, and bathrooms. They were even placed in restaurants and hotels across the region.

The sit-ins still serve as a model for student-activism 60 years later.

Though a few sit-ins had been staged in other Southern cities, they mostly remained isolated events that failed to capture the attention of the entire nation. And the fledgling civil rights movement seemed to be moving slowly, as leaders of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) argued that the best way to challenge segregation was in the courts—a process that took years.

In the fall of 1959, the four college freshmen at A&T began to grow impatient with the slow pace of progress. They met often in their dorm rooms, talking about racial injustice, King’s philosophy of nonviolence, and what they could do to make a difference. Their discussions took on more urgency after Christmas break that year, when McNeil was refused service at a rest stop in Richmond, Virginia, while traveling back to school from his family’s home in New York City. The next time the four best friends met in their dorm, they began to devise a plan to turn their late-night talks into action.

“Adults have been complacent and fearful,” Khazan later recalled saying. “It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation.”

“And we decided to start here,” he explained.

A few sit-ins had been staged in other Southern cities, but they mostly remained isolated events. As a result, they failed to capture the attention of the entire nation. And the fledgling civil rights movement seemed to be moving slowly. Much of this was because of the leaders of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They argued that the best way to challenge segregation was in the courts. That process took years.

In the fall of 1959, the four college freshmen at A&T began to grow impatient with the slow pace of progress. They met often in their dorm rooms, talking about racial injustice, King’s philosophy of nonviolence, and what they could do to make a difference. Their discussions took on more urgency after Christmas break that year. McNeil was refused service at a rest stop in Richmond, Virginia. He was traveling back to school from his family’s home in New York City. The next time the four best friends met in their dorm, they began to devise a plan to turn their late-night talks into action.

“Adults have been complacent and fearful,” Khazan later recalled saying. “It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation.”

“And we decided to start here,” he explained.

Jack Delano/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

African Americans, like this man at a North Carolina bus stop, were segregated from whites across the South during the Jim Crow era.

The Greensboro Four

“Here” was the Woolworth’s, part of one of the world’s largest retail chains. It was a typical “five and dime” that sold all kinds of merchandise for less than a dollar, and its lunch counter served about 2,000 meals a day. When it came to serving black people at the lunch counter, the policy of the F. W. Woolworth Company, based in New York City, was to “abide by local custom.” In the North, African Americans sat alongside white people at Woolworth’s, but not in the South.

On February 1, the four young men made purchases at other sales counters in the Greensboro store to prove that they’d been served and their money accepted. Then they quietly sat down at the lunch counter, expecting the worst.

“We tried to imagine all the possibilities,” McCain said decades later. “One was I was going to go to jail for a long time and never come back to school. Or the other: I was going to be trying to pick my brains up off the floor and maybe come back to my campus in a casket. But it meant just that much to me.”

After McCain and his friends ignored the waitresses’ orders to leave, the manager of the lunch counter, Clarence Harris, was summoned. He told the four young men to stop causing trouble. But they quietly remained seated. Several white customers got up and left the store, and a police officer arrived. Standing over the students, he pounded his nightstick into the palm of his hand. Sweat began to build on the students’ foreheads.

Still, they refused to move.

“Here” was the Woolworth’s. The store was part of the New York City-based F. W. Woolworth Company, one of the world’s largest retail chains. It was a typical “five and dime” that sold all kinds of merchandise for less than a dollar. Its lunch counter served about 2,000 meals a day. When it came to serving black people at the lunch counter, the company’s policy was to “abide by local custom.” In the North, African Americans sat alongside white people at Woolworth’s, but not in the South.

On February 1, the four young men made purchases at other sales counters in the Greensboro store. That proved that they’d been served and their money accepted. Then they quietly sat down at the lunch counter, expecting the worst.

“We tried to imagine all the possibilities,” McCain said decades later. “One was I was going to go to jail for a long time and never come back to school. Or the other: I was going to be trying to pick my brains up off the floor and maybe come back to my campus in a casket. But it meant just that much to me.”

McCain and his friends ignored the waitresses’ orders to leave. Then the manager of the lunch counter, Clarence Harris, was summoned. He told the four young men to stop causing trouble. But they quietly remained seated. Several white customers got up and left the store, and a police officer arrived. Standing over the students, he pounded his nightstick into the palm of his hand. Sweat began to build on the students’ foreheads.

Still, they refused to move.

The Granger Collection

An angry mob pours ketchup, mustard, and drinks on protesters sitting in at a Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi, 1963.

‘A Movement for All People’

The Greensboro Four made it until the store closed without being arrested—a small victory, but enough to encourage them to come back the next day and the next. On the third day, they were joined by about 80 other protesters, who took turns sitting at the counter and praying and picketing outside the store. By the end of the week, there were more than 1,000 of them, including fellow classmates from A&T; students from Bennett, a historically black women’s college in Greensboro; and from the segregated black high school, Dudley High. Reporters from all over the country working for newspapers, radio, and a relatively new medium, television, converged.

But opposition also arrived: hordes of white counter-protesters who tried to take Woolworth’s stools to prevent the black students from sitting there. The white mob viciously heckled the black demonstrators, and a bomb threat was called into the store one afternoon, forcing it to close early. But footage of black students opening their books at the counter and studying peacefully in the face of violent threats had begun to make national news.

“A lunch counter sit-in is more photographically powerful than an empty bus,” says David Garrow, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, “and abusive behavior by white onlookers captures the inherent nastiness of racism in clear and memorable fashion.”

The protests spread rapidly. By the end of February, sit-ins were held in at least 30 communities in eight Southern states.

“It was a movement for all people,” Khazan recalled.

Led by activist Ella Baker, a group of young grassroots organizers capitalized on the momentum of the sit-ins to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The student-led organization, whose leaders included John Lewis (now a congressman from Georgia), drew young volunteers of all races to assist in civil rights protests and voter registration.

Back in Greensboro, the demonstrations at the Woolworth’s continued for nearly six months and grew to include other stores downtown. Finally in July 1960, after the Woolworth’s had lost $1.7 million (in today’s dollars), history was made. Harris, the manager, invited three black employees to sit and be served. The lunch counter was officially desegregated.

The Greensboro Four made it until the store closed without being arrested. It was a small victory, but enough to encourage them to come back the next day and the next. On the third day, they were joined by about 80 other protesters. They took turns sitting at the counter and praying and picketing outside the store. By the end of the week, there were more than 1,000 of them. The group included fellow classmates from A&T; students from Bennett, a historically black women’s college in Greensboro; and from the segregated black high school, Dudley High. Reporters from all over the country working for newspapers, radio, and a relatively new medium, television, gathered.

But opposition also arrived. Hordes of white counter-protesters tried to take Woolworth’s stools to prevent the black students from sitting there. The white mob viciously heckled the black demonstrators. One afternoon, a bomb threat was called into the store, forcing it to close early. But footage of black students opening their books at the counter and studying peacefully in the face of violent threats had begun to make national news.

“A lunch counter sit-in is more photographically powerful than an empty bus,” says David Garrow, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, “and abusive behavior by white onlookers captures the inherent nastiness of racism in clear and memorable fashion.”

The protests spread rapidly. By the end of February, sit-ins were held in at least 30 communities in eight Southern states.

“It was a movement for all people,” Khazan recalled.

Led by activist Ella Baker, a group of young grassroots organizers capitalized on the momentum of the sit-ins to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The student-led organization drew young volunteers of all races to assist in civil rights protests and voter registration. Its leaders included John Lewis (now a congressman from Georgia).

Back in Greensboro, the demonstrations at the Woolworth’s continued for nearly six months. They grew to include other stores downtown. Finally, in July 1960, after the Woolworth’s had lost $1.7 million (in today’s dollars), history was made. Harris, the manager, invited three black employees to sit and be served. The lunch counter was officially desegregated.

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A protester holds a Black Lives Matter sign at a rally against institutional racism in New York City, August 2019.

Youth Taking Charge

The success in Greensboro was just the start. By the end of the year, it was estimated that as many as 70,000 protesters had participated in sit-ins and picketing that had resulted in some 3,000 arrests. Some of the demonstrators faced abuse and were badly injured. But many had undergone training in nonviolent civil disobedience, practicing how to remain peaceful and not respond to physical and verbal attacks. Over the next four years, students took part in similar protests not just at lunch counters, but at public pools, libraries, movie theaters, and other segregated facilities.

The young protesters were often chastised for being too “radical.” A 1961 Gallup poll showed that a majority of the American public believed that the sit-ins would harm the civil rights movement. Even many of the older civil rights leaders were wary, urging the students to slow down.

Nevertheless, they persevered. Their peaceful protests and others like them helped galvanize support in Congress for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred segregation in all public places and businesses. That might not have happened until much later, historians say, if not for the actions of young people who refused to just wait for things to change.

“So much of the energy of the Southern movement was student energy,” says Garrow, “the willingness of young people who had not yet fully begun their adult lives to step into full-time civil rights work.”

Beyond playing a vital role in the civil rights movement, SNCC also propelled many young people into the anti-Vietnam War movement. Students across the country held rallies on college campuses and marched on Capitol Hill in the 1960s and ’70s to protest the war.

Today, there’s a reinvigorated activism among students. Many have joined movements, such as Black Lives Matter to protest police brutality against African Americans and Latinos. They’ve participated in demonstrations, such as the Climate March to demand action on global warming, and March for Our Lives to call for an end to gun violence. Many historians say the Greensboro sit-ins continue to serve as a model for those present-day movements.

In 2010, the Woolworth’s in Greensboro was transformed into the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Most of the lunch counter is still there. At the museum’s opening ceremony, McCain offered this advice to young people: “Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution.”

The success in Greensboro was just the start. By the end of the year, it was estimated that as many as 70,000 protesters had participated in sit-ins and picketing. These protests resulted in some 3,000 arrests. Some of the demonstrators faced abuse and were badly injured. But many had undergone training in nonviolent civil disobedience, practicing how to remain peaceful and not respond to physical and verbal attacks. Over the next four years, students took part in similar protests. The movement went beyond lunch counters. Protests took place at public pools, libraries, movie theaters, and other segregated facilities.

The young protesters were often chastised for being too “radical.” A 1961 Gallup poll showed that a majority of the American public believed that the sit-ins would harm the civil rights movement. Even many of the older civil rights leaders were wary. They urged the students to slow down.

Even so, the students persevered. Their peaceful protests and others like them helped galvanize support in Congress for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark law barred segregation in all public places and businesses. That might not have happened until much later, historians say, if not for the actions of young people who refused to just wait for things to change.

“So much of the energy of the Southern movement was student energy,” says Garrow, “the willingness of young people who had not yet fully begun their adult lives to step into full-time civil rights work.”

SNCC played a vital role in the civil rights movement. It also propelled many young people into the anti-Vietnam War movement. Students across the country held rallies on college campuses and marched on Capitol Hill in the 1960s and ’70s to protest the war.

Today, there’s a reinvigorated activism among students. Many have joined movements, such as Black Lives Matter to protest police brutality against African Americans and Latinos. They’ve participated in demonstrations, such as the Climate March to demand action on global warming, and March for Our Lives to call for an end to gun violence. Many historians say the Greensboro sit-ins continue to serve as a model for those present-day movements.

In 2010, the Woolworth’s in Greensboro was transformed into the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Most of the lunch counter is still there. At the museum’s opening ceremony, McCain offered this advice to young people: “Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution.”

*Jibreel Khazan was born Ezell Blair Jr. but changed his name in 1968.

*Jibreel Khazan was born Ezell Blair Jr. but changed his name in 1968.

TIMELINE: The Civil Rights Era

1948: The Military

President Harry S. Truman issues an executive order to desegregate the U.S. armed forces. After widespread resistance in the military, the last all-black unit is dissolved in 1954.

President Harry S. Truman issues an executive order to desegregate the U.S. armed forces. After widespread resistance in the military, the last all-black unit is dissolved in 1954.

Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

First day of integrated school in Tennessee

1954: Brown v. Board of Ed

The Supreme Court rules that segregated public schools are unconstitutional, overturning the “separate but equal” standard. But many schools refuse to integrate for years.

The Supreme Court rules that segregated public schools are unconstitutional, overturning the “separate but equal” standard. But many schools refuse to integrate for years.

Rosa Parks in December 1956, after helping end segregation on Montgomery buses

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

1955: Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks is arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus. This sparks a boycott of city buses, led by Martin Luther King Jr.