The Civil Rights Movement of my memory began in the 1950s and as an ignorant and complacent white teenager from Ohio, it took me some time to figure out what was happening. I don’t know how many events or which particular one jolted me out of my stupor but one that I remember took place at a Five and Dime lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, sixty years ago February 1, 1960.
Many larger communities of that time had an F.W. Woolworth variety store and most of those had lunch counters. While blacks were permitted to shop for everyday goods they were not welcomed at the segregated lunch counters.
To keep the story brief, four young black men decided to challenge the system and on February 1, they sat down at the counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro and ordered cups of coffee. They were refused service but kept their seats until the store closed that evening.
The following day a group of about twenty blacks appeared at the lunch counter and were again harassed and refused service. On February 3rd over three hundred protesters appeared and tensions rapidly escalated. Several black protesters were arrested, white protesters began showing up in larger numbers, the KKK showed up as well as national news organizations.
Word of what was taking place in Greensboro spread and similar protest movements began happening in many other cities, especially in the South. Other segregated stores began to feel the loss of revenue and many took steps to begin integrating their businesses.
Segregation didn’t end with the Greensboro Four movement and even today it is no problem to find its ugly head. What happened in Greensboro, however, opened the eyes of many to the harsh realities that existed in this nation and in spite of what today’s realities are, they are certainly better than before those four brave students sat down and asked for a simple cup of coffee.
The Woolworth lunch counter has been preserved and parts of it are on display at various Civil Rights museums.
Author’s note: After publishing this piece a friend who lives in SC sent me the following:
March 2, 1960
Approximately 50 students from Allen University and Benedict College conduct the first sit-in protests in Columbia at the Woolworth and S.H. Kress department stores. The next day, five hundred students gathered to protest; nearly two hundred of these students marched to the main business center of the city where businesses closed in preparation for their arrival.