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The Greensboro sit-in was a civil rights protest that started in 1960, when young African American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The sit-in movement soon spread to college towns throughout the South. Though many of the protesters were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, their actions made an immediate and lasting impact, forcing Woolworth’s and other establishments to change their segregationist policies.
READ MORE: 'Good Trouble': How Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests
The Greensboro Four were four young Black men who staged the first sit-in at Greensboro: Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil. All four were students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.
They were influenced by the nonviolent protest techniques practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, as well as the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in 1947, in which interracial activists rode across the South in buses to test a recent Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate bus travel.
The Greensboro Four, as they became known, had also been spurred to action by the brutal murder in 1955 of a young Black boy, Emmett Till, who had allegedly whistled at a white woman in a Mississippi store.
Blair, Richmond, McCain and McNeil planned their protest carefully, and enlisted the help of a local white businessman, Ralph Johns, to put their plan into action.
On February 1, 1960, the four students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone but whites. Denied service, the four young men refused to give up their seats.
Police arrived on the scene but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. By that time, Johns had already alerted the local media, who had arrived in full force to cover the events on television. The Greensboro Four stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges.
Listen to HISTORY This Week Podcast: Sitting in for Civil Rights
Sit-Ins Spread Nationwide
By February 5, some 300 students had joined the protest at Woolworth’s, paralyzing the lunch counter and other local businesses. Heavy television coverage of the Greensboro sit-ins sparked a sit-in movement that spread quickly to college towns throughout the South and into the North, as young Black and white people joined in various forms of peaceful protest against segregation in libraries, beaches, hotels and other establishments.
By the end of March, the movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Though many were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, national media coverage of the sit-ins brought increasing attention to the civil rights movement.
In response to the success of the sit-in movement, dining facilities across the South were being integrated by the summer of 1960. At the end of July, when many local college students were on summer vacation, the Greensboro Woolworth’s quietly integrated its lunch counter. Four Black Woolworth’s employees—Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones and Charles Best—were the first to be served.
READ MORE: How the Greensboro Four Sit-In Sparked a Movement
To capitalize on the momentum of the sit-in movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960.
Over the next few years, SNCC served as one of the leading forces in the civil rights movement, organizing Freedom Rides through the South in 1961 and the historic March on Washington in 1963, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.
SNCC worked alongside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to push passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and would later mount an organized resistance to the Vietnam War.
As its members faced increased violence, however, SNCC became more militant, and by the late 1960s it was advocating the “Black Power” philosophy of Stokely Carmichael (SNCC’s chairman from 1966-67) and his successor, H. Rap Brown. By the early 1970s, SNCC had lost much of its mainstream support and was effectively disbanded.
Greensboro Sit-In Impact
The Greensboro Sit-In was a critical turning point in Black history and American history, bringing the fight for civil rights to the national stage. Its use of nonviolence inspired the Freedom Riders and others to take up the cause of integration in the South, furthering the cause of equal rights in the United States.
READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline
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Sit-in, a tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. The demonstrators enter a business or a public place and remain seated until forcibly evicted or until their grievances are answered. Attempts to terminate the essentially passive sit-in often appear brutal, thus arousing sympathy for the demonstrators among moderates and noninvolved individuals. Following Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching, Indians employed the sit-in to great advantage during their struggle for independence from the British. Later, the sit-in was adopted as a major tactic in the civil-rights struggle of American blacks the first prominent sit-in occurred at a Greensboro (North Carolina) lunch counter in 1960. Student activists adopted the tactic later in the decade in demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
A tactic similar to the sit-in, the sit-down, has been used by unions to occupy plants of companies that were being struck. The sit-down was first used on a large scale in the United States during the United Automobile Workers’ strike against the General Motors Corporation in 1937. See also civil disobedience.
On February 1, 1960, four African-American students of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a white-only lunch counter inside a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth&rsquos store. While sit-ins had been held elsewhere in the United States, the Greensboro sit-in catalyzed a wave of nonviolent protest against private-sector segregation in the United States.
The first Greensboro sit-in was not spontaneous. The four students who staged the protest, all of them male freshmen, had read about nonviolent protest, and one of them, Ezell Blair, had seen a documentary on the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Another of the four, Joseph McNeil, worked part-time in the university library with Eula Hudgens, an alumna of the school who had participated in freedom rides McNeil and Hudgens regularly discussed nonviolent protest. All four of the students befriended white businessman, philanthropist, and social activist Ralph Johns, a benefactor of both the NAACP and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical.
The first sit-in was meticulously planned and executed. While all four students had considered different means of nonviolent protest, McNeil suggested the tactic of the sit-in to the other three. To him, discipline in executing the protest was paramount. Months before the sit-in, he attended a concert at which other African-American students behaved tactlessly, leaving him determined not to repeat their error. The plan for the protest was simple. The students would first stop at Ralph Johns&rsquo store so that Johns could contact a newspaper reporter. They would then go to the Woolworth&rsquos five-and-dime store to purchase items, saving their receipts. After finishing their shopping, they would sit down at the lunch counter and courteously request service, and they would wait until service was provided.
The protest occurred as planned on Monday, February 1, 1960. Despite urbanely requesting service, the students were refused it, and the manager of the Woolworth&rsquos store requested that they leave the premises. After leaving the store, the students told campus leaders at Agricultural and Technical what had happened.
The next morning twenty-nine neatly dressed male and female North Carolina Agricultural and Technical students sat at the Woolworth&rsquos lunch counter. The protest grew the following day, and on Thursday, white students from a nearby women&rsquos college took part in the protests, which expanded to other stores. Soon crowds of students were mobbing local lunch counters. As the protests grew, opposition grew vociferous. Crowds of white men began appearing at lunch counters to harass the protesters, often by spitting, uttering abusive language, and throwing eggs. In one case, a protester&rsquos coat was set on fire, and the assailant was arrested.
The protests continued each day that week. On Saturday, fourteen hundred students arrived at the Greensboro Woolworth&rsquos store. Those who could not sit at the lunch counter formed picket lines outside the store. A phoned-in bomb threat cut the protest short, but the following week sit-ins began at Woolworth&rsquos stores in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Durham. Soon other five-and-dime and department stores with segregated lunch counters became targets of these protests.
The reaction of police departments in the region was, by and large, muted. In the case of the Greensboro Woolworth&rsquos sit-ins, protesters were left alone by the police department while those reactionaries who became violent were prosecuted. Statewide no protesters were arrested until forty-one black students in a picket line at the Cameron Village Woolworth&rsquos in Raleigh were charged with trespassing.
Despite these arrests, progress was swift. At many stores, African-Americans were soon eating at the same lunch counters as whites. For instance, at the Greensboro S.H. Kress store, blacks and whites were eating together at the lunch counter by the end of February 1960. Some stores in Raleigh closed their lunch counters altogether to preclude protests. Though most stores did not immediately desegregate their lunch counters, the sit-ins were successful both in forcing partial integration and in increasing national awareness of the indignities suffered by African-Americans in the southern United States.
The 1960 sit-ins began without the assistance of any organization, and they effected partial desegregation in less than a month without legal action. They proved one of the simplest and most efficacious protests of the civil rights movement.
William Henry Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York, 1981) Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh, 1992).
8 Touching Facts About the Historical Greensboro Sit-Ins
The Greensboro Sit-Ins were non-violent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, which lasted from February 1, 1960 to July 25, 1960. The sit-ins were the catalyst for the formation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which would become one of most important organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Read these other touching facts about the Greensboro sit-ins:
1. First prominent sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
2. Staged by four young black men who became known as the “Greensboro Four.”
3. Ezell Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil—were students at North Carolina and Agricultural and Technical College.
4. The young men influenced by the non-violent protest teachings and strategies of Mohandas Gandhi, as well as the early freedom rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1947.
5. Denied service, the young men would refuse to leave the Woolworth counter. They would repeat the process daily as long as it took to desegregate the lunch counter.
6. Ultimately, more than twenty black students joined the sit-in including coeds from Bennett College also in Greensboro. White customers harassed the black students and the lunch counter staff continued to refuse them service.
7. Greensboro Woolworth’s finally served blacks at its lunch counter on July 25, 1960, when manager Clarence Harris asked four black Woolworth’s employees—Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Best—to change out of their uniforms and into street clothes. The employees then ordered a meal at the lunch counter, becoming the first African Americans to be served at Woolworth’s.
8. Protests led to the Woolworth Department Store chain ending its policy of racial segregation in its stores in the southern United States.
8 Facts to Know About the Greensboro Four and Sit-In Movement
NORTH CAROLINA -- Feb. 1 marks the anniversary of the beginning of the historic Greensboro sit-ins, which were held at a Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro.
Led by four North Carolina A&T Students – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan (then Ezell Blair, Jr.) and David Richmond, the nonviolent protests lasted over five months.
The Greensboro sit-ins are considered one of the biggest events of the Civil Rights Movement and set the standard for modern nonviolent protest and resistance.
· The sit-ins were inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
· While the manager of the lunch counter had alerted authorities when the four students sat down, Ralph Johns, a white businessman who aided the students, had alerted media outlets earlier in the day. By the time police arrived, the media was already there and word of the protests had spread.
· When the Greensboro Four returned to the lunch counter on the second day, 20 other students were there, including some from NC A&T, Bennett College, Women's College (now University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and Dudley High School
· The fourth day of the protest included over 300 people and it expanded to a second lunch counter at Kress.
· By the end of the week, students in Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte began similar protests. It would begin sweeping through the Southeast including Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
· Sales at the boycotted stores dropped by a third.
· By July 1960, just a few months after the sit-ins first began, the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth’s had become integrated.
· Four years later, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would mandate all businesses to desegregate.
Six decades later, we often remember the work of the activists as we do many great moments of history. We create monuments and memorials and we honor the movement’s anniversaries and heroes. One of the great monuments to what took place at Greensboro and around the country is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In October 1993, curator William Yeingst heard on the news that the historic F. W. Woolworth in Greensboro was closing its department store as part of a downsizing effort. Yeingst and fellow curator Lonnie Bunch traveled to Greensboro and met with African-American city council members and the community. It was agreed that the counter should have a place at the Smithsonian Institution and volunteers from the local carpenters’ union removed an eight-foot section with four stools. Bunch, who is now the Secretary of the Smithsonian and was himself refused service at a North Carolina Woolworth's counter as a child, has said the sit-ins were “one of the most important moments in the 20th century.”
The lasting legacy of the Greensboro Four (above from left: David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan and Joseph McNeil) was how the courageous moment grew to a revolutionary movement.
Nash has some reservations, however, for how this moment is commemorated, arguing that we need to develop a new way to remember a people’s movement like the struggle in which she took part. We are accustomed to thinking of history from the perspective of leaders and seminal moments. While the sit-in at Greensboro was incredibly significant, the courageous Greensboro Four and the counter enshrined at the Smithsonian attained their legendary status thanks to the individual work, sacrifice and action of thousands of people whose names we don’t know. Nash told me that remembering this history in a decentralized way is empowering. If we remember only the leaders and the important events, she says, “You’ll think, ’I wish we had a great leader.’ If you understood it as a people’s movement, you’d ask ‘what can I do’ rather than ‘I wish someone would do something.’”
Historian Jeanne Theoharis has argued that we tend to remember the past in a mythical way, with super-heroic leaders and an almost religious conception of the redemptive power of American democracy saving the day. Theoharis contends this misappropriation of history as a fable is not only wrongheaded, but dangerous, as it “provides distorted instruction on the process of change” and diminishes people’s understanding of the persistence of and wounds caused by racism.
Looking at the nation 60 years after they led such revolutionary change in its history, Nash and Lawson agree that similar work is just as important and still needed today. “The definitions of the words ‘citizen’ and of the word ‘activist’ need to be merged,” Nash says. She believes societies don’t collapse spontaneously, but over time due to millions of little cracks in their foundations. The work to repair those cracks must be the constant work of citizens. “If you are not doing your part,” she says, “eventually someone is going to have to do their part, plus yours.”
In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution's James Smithson Bicentennial Medal was awarded to the members of the Greensboro Four (above: McNeil, McCain, Khazan and David Richmond, Jr, the son of David Richmond, who died in 1990). (NMAH)
To these leaders, doing one’s part means better understanding and then following their example. Nash bristles when action like the sit-in campaign is referred to as a “protest.” “Protests have value, but limited value,” she says, “because ‘protest’ means just what it says. I protest, because I don’t like what you’re doing. But often the powers-that-be know you don't like what they're doing, but they're determined to do it anyway.”
Lawson agrees. “We have too much social activism in the United States that is activism for the sake of activism.” He continues. “We have too little activism that is geared toward systematic investigation—of knowing the issues and then organizing a plan to change the issues from A to B and B to C. There is a sort of demand of having immediate change, which is why so many people like violence and maintain that the power of violence is the power of change. And it’s not, it’s never been.”
Sixty years later, the activists still believe nonviolent action is the key to a better future and that the future is in our hands. As Joe McNeil, now a retired Air Force Major General, said when interviewed in 2017 for a new Smithsonian display of the lunch counter he made famous, “I walked away with an attitude that if our country is screwed up, don’t give up. Unscrew it, but don’t give up. Which, in retrospect, is pretty good for a bunch of teenagers.”
The Greensboro Lunch Counter is on view permanently at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Mira Warmflash provided research assistance for this article.About the Author: Christopher Wilson is Director of Experience Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He has created several major program series at the Smithsonian including the award-winning educational theater program History Alive!, the National Youth Summit, and the History Film Forum. Read more articles from Christopher Wilson and Follow on Twitter @wolverinewilson
The Greensboro Sit-In Protests, Explained
The first day of Black History Month is also the anniversary of a historic civil rights protest and the birth of a student-led movement. February 1 marks the 59th anniversary of the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, a protest started in 1960 by four college students against racial segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their actions quickly spurred a nationwide movement that sparked a fresh wave of the civil rights era.
Before the sit-ins began in Greensboro, people in the city were already fighting to tear down white supremacist laws and practices in the Southern state. In the mid-1950s, George Simkins Jr., president of the local NAACP, led a successful fight to desegregate one of the city’s golf courses. In 1957, Josephine Boyd bravely became the first black student at Greensboro Senior High School (now called Grimsley High). Despite strong resistance from the public school system, other black students followed her lead, fighting to attend white schools throughout the city. Not that long after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in Alabama (from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956), activist and leader Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in Greensboro, in 1958.
Greensboro made the history books once again, on February 1, 1960, when four first-year students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — a historically black public institution — walked into the Woolworth’s department store downtown and asked to be served at the all-white lunch counter.
David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil were new students at A&T, but most of them weren’t new to Greensboro. Three of them had grown up, at least partially, in the city, according to the book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom, by William Chafe. Blair, whose father was active in the local civil rights movement, remembered that Dr. King’s speech in Greensboro had “brought tears to my eyes,” and all of the “Greensboro Four” or “the A&T Four,” as they became alternately known, were inspired by adults in their lives who were committed to the freedom struggle, according to the book.
The students, who were friends, carefully planned their sit-in protest from a room in A&T’s Scott Hall. By coordinating with a supportive white business owner, they contacted local media and made their way to Woolworth’s. After buying a few items, they held onto their receipts and sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. The store’s employees refused to serve them. The A&T Four came back the next day, this time with more than 20 other students in tow. The protest kept growing, and soon after, students from nearby Bennett College — a historically black women’s college in Greensboro — had joined in. So had students from Dudley High School. More students from local colleges started coming in to support the protest, including white students from Greensboro College and what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but the majority of participants were black students from A&T and Bennett. They regularly brought school work, taking shifts sitting-in at the lunch counter and demanding service. They sat quietly at the counter from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with not one protester served.
Angry white men showed up to harass protesters. Eventually, more than 1,000 students showed up to participate, including A&T’s football team. According to a book about Greensboro’s civil rights struggles, “They were met by members of white gangs who waved Confederate flags and heckled blacks sitting-in at the L-shaped lunch counter.” Food was thrown at them. Eventually, someone called in a bomb threat to Woolworth’s, and the store closed.
Despite harassment and opposition, the movement kept growing. It quickly spread across the state, and then across the South. By the end of March, 55 cities in 13 states were participating. Around the country, the sit-ins were overwhelmingly carried out by black high school and college students, often from historically black colleges and universities. In Greensboro, high school students took over leadership of the sit-ins when the college semester ended and many students went home for the summer. By July 25, 1960, theyɽ won, after a tireless campaign, with Woolworth’s and Kress both integrating their Greensboro lunch counters. By then, the movement had caught on around the country, inspiring a wide range of different protests that would adopt similar tactics at motels, pools, movie theaters, and countless other venues.
The Greensboro sit-ins marked the beginning of the student-led phase of the civil rights movement. By the end of the summer in 1961, over 70,000 had attended sit-ins, with more than 3,000 arrests.
Two months after the sit-ins began, students from around the country who had been energized by the movement met at Shaw University in Raleigh and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, to continue the struggle. SNCC helped lead the 1961 Freedom Rides and other important civil rights battles, mobilizing youth across the country, especially on campuses.
Around the same time, black leaders in Greensboro pushed to desegregate the city’s two white hospitals. Their lawsuit would result in a legal victory in 1963, leading to the desegregation of hospitals throughout the country with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Jesse Jackson — who would later become a prominent civil rights figure — helped lead subsequent desegregation efforts in Greensboro as a student at A&T. In 1963, he emerged as a leader in the fight to end segregation at various theaters and cafeterias in the city.
Four years after Greensboro students successfully pressured Woolworth’s to desegregate and ignited a nationwide revolt against white supremacy, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In many ways, it marked a pivotal moment in the black freedom struggle. In 2010, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum opened in Greensboro on the site of the Woolworth’s sit-ins, commemorating the A&T Four and the larger freedom movement. At the museum’s opening event, Franklin McCain told attendees, “Don’t wait for the masses when you want change. Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution, because people don’t like change.”
The story of the sit-ins and the A&T Four continues to serve as an example not only to people around the world but also to people in Greensboro. As recently as January 29, activists in Greensboro were invoking the sit-ins as inspiration for continued demonstrations around racial justice. And they likely will be for many years to come.
Greensboro Sit-Ins (1960)
The Greensboro Sit-Ins were non-violent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, which lasted from February 1, 1960 to July 25, 1960. The protests led to the Woolworth Department Store chain ending its policy of racial segregation in its stores in the southern United States. The Greensboro Sit-Ins were the first prominent sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
The “Greensboro Four,” the four young black men who staged the first sit-ins in Greensboro—Ezell Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil—were students at North Carolina and Agricultural and Technical College. They were influenced by the non-violent protest teachings and strategies of Mohandas Gandhi, as well as the early freedom rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1947.
Blair, Richmond, McCain, and McNeil planned the protest carefully, enlisting the help of a local white businessman, Ralph Johns, to put their plan into action. That plan was simple. They would first stop at Ralph Johns’s store so he could contact a news reporter. They would then go to Woolworth’s Five and Dime store in downtown Greensboro and sit at the lunch counters where they would ask to be served. When they were denied service, they would refuse to leave. They would repeat the process daily as long as it took to desegregate the lunch counter. They also hoped their protest would attract widespread attention to the issue and pressure Woolworth to desegregate.
On February 1, 1960, the four sat down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store. Woolworth’s lunch counter policy was to serve whites only and the staff, which included black employees, refused the four men service. The store manager, Clarence Harris, asked them to leave, but the four men stayed until the store closed that night.
The next day, more than twenty black students joined the sit-in including coeds from Bennett College also in Greensboro. White customers harassed the black students and the lunch counter staff continued to refuse them service. News reporters and a TV cameraman covered the protests the second day as the Greensboro community and eventually the nation and the world learned of them. On the third day, more than sixty people came to the Woolworth store. On the fourth day, more the three hundred people took part in the protests which now included the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store (now K-Mart).
As the sit-ins occurred in Greensboro, students from other North Carolina sites, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte, staged similar protests. The sit-in movement spread to Nashville, Tennessee Atlanta, Georgia and Richmond, Virginia, by early March.
The Greensboro Woolworth’s finally served blacks at its lunch counter on July 25, 1960, when manager Clarence Harris asked four black Woolworth’s employees—Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Best—to change out of their uniforms and into street clothes. The employees then ordered a meal at the lunch counter, becoming the first African Americans to be served at Woolworth’s. Most lunch counters around Greensboro would be desegregated over the next few weeks.
The Greensboro Sit-Ins were the catalyst for the formation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which would become one of most important organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, has collections related to the Greensboro Sit-Ins.
From Greensboro to future student action
Social movements can learn much from history, from tales either of successful or unsuccessful movements (in fact, we could probably learn a lot by better studying ineffective movements). The Greensboro student sit-in is an example of an action that proved implausibly, unpredictably effective. It did this through the use of nonviolence, even while being snubbed by more established organisations that putatively supported its objectives. It’s worth noting that sometimes things are effective in ways that nobody could have seen coming and that, many times, the adults don’t know what they’re talking about.