In February of 1960, four college students went to the local Woolworth store. Purchased some items, then sat down at the lunch counter to order coffee.
They were denied service because of the color of their skin.The manager asked them to leave. The students decided to stay, seated, politely waiting for their coffee, until closing time.
The next day, the four students (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond) returned, ordered coffee again. And were refused again.
“I certainly wasn’t afraid,” said Franklin McCain. “And I wasn’t afraid because I was too angry to be afraid. If I were lucky I would be carted off to jail for a long, long time. And if I were not so lucky, then I would be going back to my campus, in a pine box.”
McCain also remembered an older white woman approaching them, thinking she would say or do something to them, like the other hecklers. She walked up behind them, and she whispered in a calm voice, “Boys, I’m so proud of you.”
McCain would say, “What I learned from that little incident was don’t you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them.”
More people join the sit-in
The four students, who would eventually be called the Greensboro Four, would be joined by 20 other students that day, just sitting there, reading books and studying while White customers continued to heckle them.
On Day 3, more than 60 students joined in. On Day 4, there were 300 people at the lunch counter.
After one week, students were staging their own sit-ins throughout North Carolina. Soon, the movement spread to other Southern cities, then states.
On July 25, 1960, Woolworth finally relented and black employees of Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter. The next day, the entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike.
The sit-ins would eventually spread to other forms of public accommodation. And in 1964, The Civil Rights Act was passed, mandating desegregation in public accommodations.
The Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
And a section of the lunch counter in which the four students sat is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.
A reminder of our past when the color of your skin prohibited you from just sitting down at a lunch counter and ordering a cup of coffee.