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60 Years Ago: Students launched sit-in movement

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The brave freshmen from North Carolina A&T State College (now University), who would later be adorned with the iconic label of the “Greensboro Four,’’ were David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan). Photo provided by New Journal and Guide Archives

By Dr. Kelton EdmondsSpecial to The New Journal and Guide/NNPA

Dr. Kelton Edmonds is a history professor at California University of Pennsylvania. His primary research is on Black student activism in the United States. Photo provided

February 1, 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of the launch of the historic sit-in movement, when four African-American freshmen from North Carolina A&T State College (now University) in Greensboro, NC sparked the non-violent and student-led wave of protests that ultimately resulted in the desegregation of F.W. Woolworth and other racially discriminatory stores.  

The brave freshmen from NCA&T, who would later be adorned with the iconic label of the “Greensboro Four,” consisted of David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan). On February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four bought items at Woolworth’s, then sat at the ‘Whites-only’ lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. Although waitresses refused to serve them, in accordance with the store’s racist policies, the four would continue their protest and in the following days and weeks would be joined by more students from NCA&T, the nearby all-women’s HBCU Bennett College and students from other nearby colleges and high schools.  

Black and White student protesters received daily threats of violence and verbal assaults from White antagonists. Khazan recalls one caller who reached him on the dorm hall phone and bellowed, “…executioners are going to kill you!” White student allies who protested alongside Black students were not immune from death threats either, Khazan said. 

The Greensboro students persisted nevertheless, and soon, the protests that flooded the lunch counters of the segregated store would spread to other cities throughout the South beginning in North Carolina cities such as Elizabeth City, Charlotte and Winston-Salem, in addition to cities in Virginia. 

Violent episodes were the exceptions and not the rule of the massively spreading Sit-in Movement. In nearly all sit-in cities, protesters made immeasurable efforts to avoid violence at all costs since the movement and training centered on non-violent demonstrations in confronting inequality. The Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) conducted intense and successful non-violent workshops with the young people.  

The coordinated demonstrations of thousands of Black student protesters and sympathizers put insurmountable pressure on Woolworth’s, as it became nearly impossible for regular customers to purchase items, eat at the lunch counters and even enter the store in many instances.  

Students stage a sit-in at a lunch counter in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1960. Photo provided by New Journal and Guide Archives.

On May 25, the sit-in movement received a major victory as lunch counters at Woolworth’s in Winston Salem, NC desegregated. Soon after, Woolworth’s in Nashville, TN and San Antonio, TX also integrated. Finally, on July 25, ground zero, Woolworth’s in Greensboro integrated its lunch counter. With the possibility of facing bankruptcy, F.W. Woolworth totally acquiesced and desegregated all of its lunch counters throughout the nation by the end of the summer of 1960. 

Similar to the successful 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the students’ triumphant coordinated protests in 1960 further demonstrated how mass economic boycotts could lead to desegregationist social victories, particularly when targeting businesses that relied heavily on Black patronage.  

The sit-ins combined with the freedom rides led to Black students establishing their unique value and niche to the larger Civil Rights Movement. Black students understood their unique, collective power and desired to harness their efforts under a national apparatus. Consequently, another major legacy of the student movement that emerged in Greensboro was it also directly led to the birth of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April of 1960 in nearby Raleigh, NC on the campus of Shaw University.  

SNCC would soon emerge as one of the most formidable organizations of the decade, elevating students to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.  

The students’ decision to remain student-led received noteworthy support from several key adult Civil Rights leaders in Greensboro in addition to Ella Baker from SCLC.  

SNCC would prove to be an indispensible organization that not only championed directly confronting Jim Crow racism on numerous levels through organized protests and massive voter registration drives, but SNCC also further popularized the concept of participatory democracy and was the first major Civil Rights organization to evolve toward seriously embracing principles of black power ideology under Stokely Carmichael’s (Kwame Ture) leadership in 1966.  

Recent episodes of student activism exhibited in the Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014-15, as well as the student protests led by black students at the University of Missouri in 2015, which ultimately led to the resignation of the chancellor, have attributes that correlate to the 1960 student movement. The student movement of 1960, ignited by the Greensboro Four, provided a blueprint for future students to build upon, perfect, and utilize in a variety of ways for a plethora of circumstances.  

Most importantly, what happened in 1960 showed young people the power they possessed to address their grievances and ultimately bring about change on both local and national levels if they organized themselves and remained committed.  

Dr. Kelton Edmonds is a Professor of History at California University of Pennsylvania. His primary research is on Black Student Activism in the United States. He is a native of Portsmouth, VA and graduated from I.C. Norcom High school in 1993. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Secondary Education-History from North Carolina A&T State University. He earned his Ph.D. in 20th Century US History from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  

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