On a Monday afternoon, on February 1, 1960, four young black men entered an F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Jibreel Khazan, A&T college students, walked into the store in their coats and ties. As they were accustomed to doing, the four students browsed the store’s items and stepped up to the counter to buy the kind of everyday things they typically bought: toothpaste, notebooks, a hairbrush, etc.
Woolworth’s was the spot where everyone bought just about everything. And this visit to the shop started out no different than previous times. They stuffed their receipts into their pockets, and with their hearts racing, they turned to their mission. They knew what to expect, but the staff at Woolworth’s wasn’t in on their plan.
This is the story of a group of four brave men who essentially led a new and important civil rights movement.
Before becoming known as the “Greensboro Four,” Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan, and David Richmond, were students in their freshman year at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. They would meet in their dorm rooms to discuss their options – ways in which they could stand against segregation. They were inspired by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., especially his practice of nonviolent protest.
The students specifically wanted to change the segregation policies of F. W. Woolworth in their town. During Christmas 1959, McNeil tried to buy a hot dog at the local Greyhound bus station, but he was refused service. After that, the guys decided to take action. Their plan was simple: occupy the seats at Woolworth’s, ask to be served, and when they were denied service as expected, they just wouldn’t leave.
The group of four decided that they would repeat the process every day for as long as it took. Their goal: to attract widespread attention on the issue, forcing Woolworth’s (and hopefully other establishments) to implement desegregation.
So, as they were about to sit at the lunch counter, adrenaline rushed through them. This was it – their plan was now put in action. As they sat there, they could smell the ham and egg salad sandwiches, hear the whirr of the soda fountain, and the low chatter of diners. But aside from the aromas they were smelling, they could also sense others looking at them. The four students looked at one another, nodded in agreement, and then silently walked forward.
The friends felt the invisible line of separation between the shopping area open to everyone and the dining area where black Americans were forbidden from taking a seat. They knew as everyone in the South did that stepping past that line could get them arrested, beaten or, even killed.
The four of them were all the age that Emmett Till, who was tortured and murdered five years earlier in Mississippi, would have been. They sat down at the counter. After a few moments, people started to notice what was going on. Just as the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, discovered their power after Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955, the Greensboro Four were about to create their own change.
The small group politely asked for service, and of course, they were refused. The white waiter suggested that they head to the “stand-up counter” for a take-away order instead. After all, that was the policy for black customers. That’s when they pulled out their receipts and told the lady that they disagreed with her.
“You do serve us here, you’ve served us already, and we can prove it. We’ve got receipts. We bought all these things here, and we just want to be served,” Franklin McCain remembered saying. McCain, who died in 2014 at the age of 73, spoke about living under segregation as a teenager, and how he was so dispirited, traumatized, and suicidal. He said how the experience of sitting down on that simple chrome stool and vinyl seat immediately transformed him.
At that point, it was utterly silent in the dining area. The voices were hushed and all you could hear was the clinking of silverware as the four refused to leave their stools. “Almost instantaneously, after sitting down on a simple, dumb stool, I felt so relieved. I felt so clean, and I felt as though I had gained a little bit of my manhood by that simple act,” McCain said in 2010.
An older black employee, who was likely worried about her job and/or their safety, came out from the kitchen and suggested they follow the rules – for their own good. The four would always discuss their mistrust of anyone over 18 years old. McCain remembered that he and his friends saw little change by those around them, so they were indifferent to the suggestion to not cause any trouble.
But then the store manager, Clarence “Curly” Harris, came over to them. He told the young guys that it would be wise to rethink their actions before they got themselves into trouble. But still, they remained in their seats. Soon enough, a police officer walked in and spoke with Harris. He then walked behind the students at the stools and took out his Billy club.
McCain remembered thinking: “This is it.” The cop was pacing back and forth behind the students in a way that you usually see in the movies – hitting the baton against his hand. It was unsettling, as McNeil remembered, but they continued to sit still. Considering that the cop kept pacing back and forth without saying a word or escalating the situation, the activists soon began to understand their power.
The young men were right there, in that moment, realizing that they found power in their nonviolent approach. They also noticed that the officer simply didn’t know what to do in such a situation, and left. The last one to approach the Greensboro Four that first day (and there were more days to come) was an elderly white woman, who got up from her seat and walked toward McCain.
She sat next to him, looked at all four students, and told them that she was disappointed in them. McCain, who was wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform, was ready to defend himself, but he remained calm and asked her something. “Ma’am, why are you disappointed in us for asking to be served like everyone else?”
That’s when she looked at them, put her hand on McNeil’s shoulder, and said, “I’m disappointed it took you so long to do this.” By doing something as simple as sitting at the counter, asking to be served, and sitting quietly, the Greensboro Four paralyzed the entire store, staff, patrons and police. And it lasted for hours on that Monday afternoon.
The truth is none of them expected to walk out of Woolworth’s that day as free men. It seemed a lot more likely that they would be carried out by authorities. But when the baffled Harris announced that the store would close early that day, and the men finally got up to leave, they felt a sense of victory.
The Greensboro Four and their silent protest was an incredible act of courage, but it wasn’t so unique. In fact, there had been previous sit-ins. In 1957, in Durham, North Carolina, seven black Americans staged a sit-in at the segregated Royal Ice Cream Parlor. But the thing that made Greensboro different was how it went from a courageous moment to a revolution.
The right combination of both organic and planned ingredients came together and created an unprecedented type of youth activism that changed the way the civil rights movement was heading, not to mention the country itself. Yet besides that initial act of courage at Woolworth’s, more action was needed. One major ingredient was still missing…
One essential element that was needed was publicity. Only one photo was taken of the four men at Woolworth’s that first day. And one photo wasn’t enough to gain traction in the press. The Greensboro Four returned to their campus in the hopes of gaining more support to expand their demonstration.
As word spread, it started happening. “We started growing,” McNeil said. “The first day, four. The second day, probably 16 or 20. It was organic. [A] mind of its own.” On the second day, February 2, more than 20 black students (four of them women) joined the sit-in. The group sat at the counter from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with their school work to stay busy.
That second group at Woolworth’s was again refused service, and they were harassed by the white customers. But on that second day, the sit-ins were now on the local news, with reporters, a TV cameraman and cops present throughout the day. Meanwhile, on campus, the Student Executive Committee for Justice was being organized. The committee sent a letter to the president of F.W. Woolworth, asking him to “take a firm stand to eliminate discrimination.”
On February 3, the third day of the sit-in, the number of silent protestors grew to over 60, including students from Dudley High School. About one third were women, and many of them were students from Bennett College, a black women’s university in Greensboro.
White customers weren’t so amused, though, as they heckled the students, who were just reading their books and studying. As they heckled, the lunch counter staff continued to refuse any service. It got to the point that North Carolina’s official chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, George Dorsett, and other members of the Klan were present.
What did F.W. Woolworth have to say about it? A statement from the store’s national headquarters stated that the company would “abide by local custom” and stick to its segregation policy. On February 4, more than 300 people were involved in the sit-in. The group took up the entire seating area at the lunch counter.
Organizers expanded the sit-in protests to include the Greensboro’s S. H. Kress & Co. lunch counter. That day, students, college administrators, and representatives from Woolworth’s and Kress & Co. met to discuss what was going on. But since the companies were refusing to integrate, the meeting was never resolved.
On February 5, a very tense environment at Woolworth’s counter emerged when 50 white men who were sitting at the counter were in opposition of the protesters, which now included white college students, too. By 3.00 p.m., again, over 300 activists were at the store. This time, rather interestingly, the police removed two white customers for cussing and yelling. The police then arrested three white customers.
There was another meeting between students, college officials, and store representatives that took place, but again, no resolution was reached. The stores’ representatives were expressing frustration that only some segregated stores were being protested. They asked for intervention by college administrators, and some administrators even suggested they temporarily close the lunch counters.
On February 6, over 1,400 North Carolina students met on campus. As a large group, they voted to continue the nonviolent protests. They went back to Woolworth’s and literally filled up the place. More than 1,000 protesters packed themselves into the store at noon. By 1 p.m., a bomb threat was made by a phone call. The protesters were then forced to head to the Kress store, but it was immediately closed, along with Woolworth’s.
Soon, press coverage spread, and it fueled the imaginations of students across the country. Julian Bond, a future movement leader, often says that “the civil rights movement, for me, began on February 4, 1960.” In 2010, Bond recounted how he was in Atlanta when he saw in the newspaper a headline that read: “Greensboro students sit-in for the third day.”
At that moment, Bond wondered aloud to his friend. “I wonder if anyone will do that here.” His friend said he was sure someone would do it, and then Bond paused and responded, “Why don’t we make that ‘someone’ us?” As the media coverage grew, so did the activism. By the second week of the sit-ins, the budding movement was making headlines in the New York Times.
On March 16, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made a statement. He expressed his concern for these freedom fighters who were fighting for their rights. He said he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.” The movement spread to other Southern cities, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte, Richmond, Virginia, and Lexington, Kentucky.
As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro. The students went further by boycotting any stores with segregated lunch counters. As a result, sales at such stores dropped by a third. It worked, as owners started to abandon segregation policies. On July 25, 1960, with nearly $200,000 in losses ($1.7 million in today’s dollars), store manager Clarence Harris did something that made history.
Harris asked four of his black employees, Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Bess, to change out of their work outfits, remove their aprons, and order a meal at the lunch counter. They turned out to be the first black Americans to be served at a Woolworth lunch counter. Most stores were starting to become desegregated.
However, in Jackson, Tennessee, Woolworth’s was still segregated until around 1965, despite the multiple protests. But for the most part, thousands of students in dozens of American cities were being awakened and sprang into action. While the Greensboro Four and all the others who joined the new movement certainly made a dent, there was also the strategy and planning that occurred over a year earlier that helped make it all happen.
400 miles away, in Nashville, Tennessee, there were unrelated events that turned it into a national movement. In 1957, Martin Luther King met 29-year-old James Lawson, a theology graduate student at Oberlin College in Ohio. Lawson dedicated himself to studying social movements around the world. As a Methodist missionary, he traveled to India.
There, he realized that Gandhi’s nonviolence method was exactly what they needed to resist injustice and oppression. Martin Luther King urged Lawson to move to the country’s South since they didn’t have anyone like him down there. The next year, Lawson took a minister’s position in Nashville and took classes at Vanderbilt University. In 1959, Lawson and another minister by the name of Kelly Miller Smith launched a nonviolent campaign against segregation and oppression in downtown Nashville.
“Every downtown in the southern part of the country, but also places like Los Angeles, where I live now, and Chicago, were extremely hostile places to black people,” Lawson said. Black people were not only forbidden to sit at lunch counters, but they also couldn’t try on shoes or hats in the stores they shopped in.
For Lawson, attacking prohibition against employment was most important. In his eyes, it “was the most torturous aspect of racism and Jim Crow.” Job opportunities downtown were almost impossible for black people to get. Company rules and hiring practices meant that black people couldn’t be in most positions, forced to fill mainly menial jobs. “You cannot work as a clerk, you cannot work as a salesperson, you cannot work as a department head in a department store,” Lawson explained.
In 1959, Lawson and Smith were looking for recruits to create social change and to motivate young people. Lawson and Smith held weekly classes on nonviolent action, and two of the most significant students to join were Diane Nash and John Lewis. This Nashville group created a strategy and planned for action, using Gandhi’s nonviolence as their guide.
During the fall of 1959, as part of the investigative phase of their planning, they started to do test sit-ins in downtown Nashville. They would literally sit down and essentially violate the segregation policy. Diane Nash said she was pleasantly surprised when she heard that the Greensboro Four took action. With her group’s unrelated plans, they were now able to quickly respond and organize more sit-ins in Nashville beginning on February 13, 1960.
”Greensboro became the message,” John Lewis said. “If they can do it in Greensboro, we too can do it.” By the following month, the sit-in movement had spread like wildfire and reached 55 cities in 13 states. The protests grew and transformed into a movement, organized and driven by students, and was mostly under the leadership of a woman named Ella Baker.
As historian Cornell West once said, “There is no civil rights movement without Ella Baker.” Baker, born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, was influenced by the stories of her grandmother, who survived slavery. After graduating from Shaw University, Baker moved to New York and started working as a social activist in organizations from the Young Negroes Cooperative League to the NAACP.
In 1957, she moved to Atlanta to work with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But when, in 1960, the student sit-ins started, she left SCLC. Baker organized a conference to unite student activists around the country. The meeting in April 1960 at Shaw University established what would become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis, Lawson, and Nash were the founding members. Ultimately, their campaign successfully managed to desegregate many public facilities. Diane Nash believes that the most significant effect of the whole campaign was the change it created in the activists themselves. People started to understand their own power and the power of nonviolent action. Within a few years, segregation became illegal with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But according to Nash, it ceased to exist in 1960, when the black community decided that “we were not segregatable” anymore. One monument to what took place at Greensboro and across the country sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 1993, curator William Yeingst heard that the historic Woolworth’s in Greensboro was closing down as part of a downsizing effort.
Yeingst and another curator, Lonnie Bunch, went to Greensboro. They wanted to memorialize that famous Woolworth’s counter. The Smithsonian Institution and volunteers removed an eight-foot section with four stools. Bunch, now the Secretary of the Smithsonian, was himself once refused service at a North Carolina Woolworth’s counter when he was a kid. According to Bunch, the sit-ins were “one of the most important moments in the 20th century.”
60 years later, Nash and Lawson agree that similar work is still just as important and very much needed today. “The definitions of the words ‘citizen’ and of the word ‘activist’ need to be merged,” Nash said. In her opinion, societies don’t collapse spontaneously, but rather over time as a result of millions of little cracks in their foundations.
Repairing those cracks requires the constant work of citizens. “If you are not doing your part,” Nash says, “eventually someone is going to have to do their part, plus yours.” Now, at a time like this, with all the racial tension in the country, these words are ever the more relevant.
Those brave enough to fight racial segregation in the South in those days were beaten and arrested. So where are they now, decades later? Let’s take the event that occurred on May 14, 1961 — Mother’s Day — when a whole bunch of angry white people blocked a Greyhound bus that was carrying black and white passengers through Alabama.
They threw rocks and bricks at the bus, slashed its tires, smashed its windows with pipes and axes, and tossed a firebomb through a broken window. The scene was extremely violent. As smoke and flames were filling the bus, the mob blocked the bus’s door. “Burn them alive,” was yelled out. It took a while for authorities to arrive on the scene.
Only when an exploding fuel tank and warning shots from state troopers were heard did the mob move away and allowed the riders to escape the burning bus. Even then, some unlucky passengers were pummeled with baseball bats as they tried to run away. Hours later, another group of black and white passengers on a Trailways bus were attacked.
They were attacked for entering whites-only waiting rooms and restaurants at different bus terminals in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. Those passengers were eventually referred to as Freedom Riders and were among the first an eventual total of 400 volunteers who traveled through the South on scheduled buses for seven months in 1961.
The Freedom Riders were testing a 1960 Supreme Court decision that apparently made segregated facilities for interstate passengers illegal. As news stories and photos of the burning bus and the violent attacks spread throughout the country, more people came forward to volunteer and essentially risk their lives to challenge the racial status quo.
Eric Etheridge, a veteran magazine editor, paid tribute to these road warriors in “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.” His book is a collection of recent portraits of 80 Freedom Riders next to mug shots from their arrests in 1961. It also includes interviews with the now elderly activists reflecting on their experiences.
Etheridge, who himself grew up in Mississippi, focuses on the Freedom Riders that boarded buses to Jackson, Mississippi, from May to September 1961. He was only 4 years old at the time and completely unaware of the racial tension that was taking place around him. But he does remember using one entrance to a doctor’s office, while black people were forced to use another.
He also recalls sitting in the orchestra of the local movie theater while black people sat in the balcony. A few years ago, Etheridge, who now lives in New York City, visited his parents in Jackson in 2003. There, he was reminded of a lawsuit that forced the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to open its archives.
The agency files, which went online in 2002, included over 300 arrest photographs of Freedom Riders. Etheridge described how the police camera “caught something special,” which was “an amazing addition to the visual history of the civil rights movement.” Without knowing it, the segregationist commission, which forced the archives to be made public, created an homage to these Freedom Riders.
Nearly 75% of these volunteer fighters were between 18 and 30 years old. About half of them were black, and a quarter were women. Looking at their mug-shot expressions, you can sense their defiance, pride, vulnerability, as well as their fear. “I was captivated by these images and wanted to bring them to a wider audience,” Etheridge wrote in his book.
“I wanted to find the riders today, to look into their faces and photograph them again.” And so, by using the Internet and information found in the arrest files, he tracked some of them down, then made cold calls. Etheridge said that his best icebreaker was: “I have your mug shot from 1961. Have you ever seen it?”
He explained how even those who are prone to be cautious were intrigued to know if the mug shots still existed. Most of the Freedom Riders were college students, many with religious affiliations. The goal of those bus rides, CORE director James Farmer said, was “to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law.”
Robert Singleton was one of the riders, and recalled hearing the call for volunteer activists, and remembers that he “was fired up and ready to go.” He and his wife, Helen, were both active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Singleton, now 73, is an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Peter Ackerberg, another former Freedom Rider, is now a lawyer who lives in Minneapolis. He recalled thinking, “What am I going to tell my children when they ask me about this time?” As he boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, he was “pretty scared,” he told Etheridge. “The black guys and girls were singing. They were so spirited and so unafraid. They were really prepared to risk their lives.”
The Freedom Rides demonstrated how some Southern states were overtly ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court’s law to desegregate bus terminals, but it would take a petition from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to make the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue new regulations. They were backed by fines of up to $500 that eventually ended segregated bus facilities.
After the order went into effect, on November 1, 1961, there was still segregation. Still, the “white” and “colored” signs in the bus stations in the South started to come down. The New York Times, which previously criticized the Freedom Riders, ultimately acknowledged that they “started the chain of events which resulted in the new I.C.C. order.”