60 Years Later, We Remember The Greensboro Four, Civil Rights Sit-in Pioneers
|thenorthstar||Feb 10, 2020|
Sixty years ago, four Black North Carolina A&T students decided to hold a sit-in at their local Woolworth’s lunch counter as a non-violent protest against segregation. The actions of the “Greensboro Four” served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement and inspired generations of social activists. The date was February 1, 1960, when Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan (born Ezell Blair Jr.) and Dave Richmond walked into the Woolworth’s on Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina prepared to face decades of Jim Crow right in the eye. “It was imperative that me and others around the country…[to] take a stand” against segregation, McNeil, 77, told The North Star this week from his home on Long Island. The “A&T Four,” as they also became known, “wanted to bring about [a] standard basic decency for African Americans,” John Swaine, the CEO of the International Civil Rights Museum and Center in Greensboro. The four students bought a few toiletries and then took seats at the lunch counter to be served. They were denied and asked to leave. The Police were called. An officer paced behind the four slapping his billy club into his hand. Ultimately, the officer left without doing a thing. None of the Four was arrested. McNeil and the three others persisted and remained seated despite repeatedly being denied service. When the store closed for the day, The Four left for their dorms unharmed. In a 2016 interview with the New York Daily News, McNeil recalled a meeting that night with an elderly white woman who had watched as they sat patiently, yet unserved. He said that the woman, who appeared to be in her 80s, rested her hand on one of their shoulders and told them she was disappointed with them. McCain asked why she felt that way. “Because it took you so long to do what you’re doing,” the lady replied. Despite threats and facing arrest, The Greensboro Four continued the sit-ins along with other students until they graduated. McNeil, who went on to serve in the Air Force, was arrested twice for protesting segregation at lunch counters. “If this is what we needed to do in order to bring this down, we’ll do it,” he told the NY Daily News. Those were his feelings then as now. The sit-ins continued into the Summer, local high school kids joining the college students. Six months later, on July 25, 1960, Woolworth’s integrated all of its lunch counters around the country. By then, student-led sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. “They ignited protests,” Swaine explained. “It was almost like an awakening of students across the South and in places around the North where there were segregated eating facilities.” The actions of the Greensboro Four have been called a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they encourage others to hold sit-ins, but they also inspired students in Raleigh to launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And the Woolworth’s where it all started? It’s now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. “To me it was one of the turning points in history,” Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute, told The Charlotte Observer. “That’s just as remarkable as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. It’s an example of how movements are often started by people dealing with problems right in front of them.” Joseph McNeil, one of the two remaining "Greensboro Four" members, said it was "imperative" that he and his peers stand up to segregation. (Photo by Eric Barrow) Inspiring Future Generations It’s clear that the non-violent protests led by students in the 1960s have influenced protests led by students today. Swaine told The North Star that the Woolworth’s turned museum has helped educate younger generations about the sit-ins and the important place they have in the Civil Rights Movement. Learning about the Greensboro Four has made younger people more aware of movements currently being led by students, including the March for Our Lives and the climate change protests led by 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Swaine said. McNeil was reticent to provide advice for young activists, noting that every individual must decide how to address injustices. “There are always issues of injustice and unfairness that need to be addressed,” he told The North Star. “You choose how you produce the actions required. You have to do something, you just can’t sit on the sidelines.” The civil rights icon was adamant that people cannot stand idly as injustices happen. “Don’t just sit on the sidelines…if it’s broke, fix it,” he said. Two lunch counter stools from historic Greensboro sit-ins at Woolworth's, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Donated by the
International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro,
N.C.) How to Commemorate the 60th Anniversary There are only two living members of the Greensboro Four, McNeil and Blair. McNeil lives on Long Island with his wife, who he met during his Air Force days. Blair, 78, changed his name to Jibreel Khazan and lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He declined to speak to The North Star due to travel. There will be several events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins. North Carolina A&T, which honors the Greensboro Four with a statue of the students, hosted a commemorative event with keynote guest speaker Roland Martin, the author and CNN contributor. The commemorative program was scheduled for January 31 with a wreath-laying ceremony on the February One Monument. Swaine told The North Star that the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which houses an exact replica of the lunch counters used in the sit-ins, will host a commemorative event on February 1 with several guests, including sit-in participant Dr. Linda Brown, actor Danny Glover and Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The event will be held in honor of McNeil and Blair, said Swaine. A documentary featuring the late Franklin McCain, by Charlotte journalist Steve Crump, will debut at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture on February 5. Related Stories
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.