The news media is fascinated with anniversaries, especially those ending in round numbers. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins was celebrated this week. On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T University – Ezell A. Blair, Jr., David L. Richmond, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain – initiated a successful effort to desegregate the lunch counter at the downtown Woolworth’s store.
Although the four college students are hailed for taking a seat in order to stand up for their rights, it is important to remember that they were not alone. In fact, after they were refused service, they returned the following day with more than two dozen students. The numbers continued to swell, reaching 300 on February 5, four days after the initial protest. Among the protesters were students from Bennett College, the allfemale Black college in Greensboro, and Dudley High, the school that African American students attended under segregation.
Coming six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated public schools and five years after the tragic murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till near Money, Miss., the Greensboro sitin movement sparked similar movements in other cities, including Durham, Nashville, Atlanta, Little Rock and Miami.
This was three years before the March on Washington, five years before the Selma-to-Montgomery March in Alabama, four years before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and five years before the Voting Rights Act.
Today, we don’t think twice about whether we’ll be served if we enter any downtown restaurant. But that hasn’t always been so. In the case of Greensboro, African-American shoppers were encouraged to spend their money at such stores as Woolworth’s, a five-anddime discount retail chain. However, they weren’t allowed to try on clothes before taking them home, were relegated to separate toilets and certainly weren’t allowed to sit next to whites at lunch counters. In Greensboro, as was the case in other cities across the South, Blacks were not allowed to sit at all. The Woolworth’s store in Greensboro had four counter seats for Whites. African Americans, at least prior to the protest, had to eat while standing on their feet. As we begin our annual celebration of Black History Month, it is important to celebrate the thousands of nameless and faceless brave men, women and children who formed the nucleus of the modern civil rights movement yet never received the acclaim of the four students who led the Greensboro protest. Their names are not in the history books, they gave no speeches about their dreams and their graves are not enshrined with markers listing their brave accomplishments. Yet, they are at least as important as Dr. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis or Whitney Young.
It’s great to celebrate the epic moments of the civil rights movement, but it is even greater to realize that Blacks have always struggled against oppression in this country. Many of the protests that are among the most celebrated were predated by similar protests that, for some reason, did not capture the national imagination of later movements.
For example, before there was a Greensboro sit-in protest in 1960, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had organized sit-ins in Chicago (1942), St. Louis (1949) and Baltimore (1952). Greensboro wasn’t the first sit-in site in North Carolina. On June 23, 1957, seven students were arrested in Durham at the Royal Ice Cream Shop for staging a sitin, in the “Whites Only” section. They were convicted and the U.S. Supreme Court later refused to take up their appeal.
The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott launched the career of a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King and made Rosa Parks a household name. Two years earlier, Rev. T.J. Jemison, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., had organized a successful bus boycott that served as the template for Montgomery. Volunteer drivers, traveling on routes normally traversed by city buses, picked up passengers and drove to their normal bus stop. To avoid being prosecuted for operating as an unlicensed taxi or bus, drivers did not charge riders.
The boycott ended June 25, 1953 with Jemison and other Black leaders reaching a compromise with city officials. The settlement called for the first two front seats being reserved for Whites, the long seat in the back of buses reserved for African Americans and all sets in between offered on a first-come-firstserved basis.
There are many other instances of early Black protests, including a 1939 sit-in at the Alexandria, Va. library, organized by attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker, and a successful 1958 drugstore lunch counter sit-in in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps the lesson we should emphasize this Black History Month is that African-American protesters have always made history, even when their efforts were ignored by the media and went unrecognized by their own people. We to need worry less today about whether our work is covered by network television crews and daily newspapers and care more about whether we are being true to the dedicated souls who came before us.