Friday, February 1, 2013

Four Cups of Coffee for Change—The Lunch Counter Sit-ins

Ezell A. Blair, Jr.Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond leave the Woolworth store after the first day of the Greensboro lunch  counter sit-in.

There was no charismatic leader that day, no eloquent preacher, no carefully planned campaign.  Just four young guys, freshmen no less, from an obscure public college for Negros, the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina.  One afternoon, February 1, 1960, they ambled over to downtown Greensboro where they causally plopped themselves down on four stools of a Woolworth's Luncheonette.  They ordered coffee.  Very politely.

In those days before chain fast food joints, the lunch counters at Woolworths, other dime stores, and drug stores were the top options for an inexpensive, quick meal while running errands in the still thriving down towns of American cities.  Woolworths, like other chains, had a policy of “honoring local custom and law.”  In the South that meant they would not serve Blacks.  That in turn left employees of down town business as well as customers of those stores who happened o be Black often had no place to grab a hot lunch or rest their feet.

It was an injustice.  Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond decided to do something about it.  So they ordered coffee.  The waitresses at the counter informed them that they could not serve Coloreds.  They politely told her that they intended to stay until they were served. 

So they sat until closing, enduring the taunts and jeers of white customers.  When the store closed, they returned to the campus with the promise to return.

On the second day McNeil and McCain returned to the lunch counter with two other students.  This time a TV camera man was on hand to film their defiance.  Articles appeared in the local press.  Word was getting out.  Crowds of angry whites began to mill about the store.

On day three about sixty people from the college and community turned out in support of the rotating cast of young men in those four stools.  Word of the protest made national headlines and mention on the network evening news program.  Woolworths corporate headquarters issued a statement promising to continue to honor local custom.

More than 300 turned out on day four and the sit-in was extended to another lunch counter at local Kress store.

By the end of the week black college students had spread the sit-ins to Woolworth stores in Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte as well as towns in other states.  The Greensboro Four, as the original protestors came to be called, had sparked a largely spontaneous movement.

It’ not that sit-ins were unknown. The first in the South had been more than twenty years earlier in 1939 as a protest in the Alexandria, Virginia public library.  In the late 1940’s the Quaker Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which was urging the adoption of Ghandian non-violent resistance, began to use the tactic sparingly.  In the early 1950’s volunteers from the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) who had been trained by the FOR’s Bertrand Russell and others used sit-in protests in Northern and borders state cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore.  But in the mid-‘50’s civil rights protest had moved to business boycotts, voter registration campaigns, and mass marches.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and their allies at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had spread this brand of protest successfully in high profile campaigns.

But something about the Sit-in protests struck a chord with both the public and with newly empowered activists.  The movement spread to cities throughout the South.  In Nashville FOR trained pacifist James Lawson who had already trained a disciplined cadre of students in the tactics of passive resistance and these volunteers spread out over the city and surrounding area with a well coordinated campaign.

Meanwhile the original Greensboro students decided to declare a nationwide boycott of Woolworths and were supported by volunteers from existing civil rights organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)  Pickets showed up at stores across the country.

In far off Cheyenne, Wyoming I was 11 years old and encountered my first demonstrator of any kind—one lone guy in a sandwich board sign outside the downtown Woolworths where I used to go for lunch every Saturday.  After a gruff beginning, “What are you staring at, kid,” I was informed about the boycott.  I had seen footage of the sit-ins on TV.  I was sympathetic.  It was the first picket line I refused to cross.

Maybe the loss of an 11 year old’s once-a-week lunch money, didn’t harm the company, but the boycott was cutting deeply into profits.  Woolworth stores were Stone Age discount houses and were the preferred shopping places of poor blacks across the south and in the big cities of the North.  Whites could afford the upscale downtown Department Stores.  Woolworths found its sales off as much as 30% in key cities.

The chain was also taking a beating in the court of public opinion, especially in the north.  Highly respected President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed that he was, “deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights…of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution,” when asked directly about the sit-ins during a news conference.

In Nashville Lawton’s campaign paid off when they won city-wide desegregation of lunch counters in May.  In other towns local merchants capitulated as the boycotts and sit-ins ate into the bottom line.

On July 25 the Greensboro Woolworth threw in the towel.  That day they served their own Black employees for the first time.  The next day the lunch counter was officially opened to Backs not only in that town, but across the entire chain.

In the next few years the sit-in tactic was applied to all sorts of struggles for equal access to public accommodation.  The bloody Freedom Rides of 1961 put wheels on the sit-in.  The tactic helped bring about the public outcry that led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1963 which guaranteed equal access to public accommodations in interstate commerce.

Today the Greensboro Woolworth building has been transformed into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum which has preserved a section of the original lunch counter and four stools.

All in all, not a bad legacy for four college kids who wouldn’t take no for an answer.


  1. I appreciate your noting this significant historical event. Please note that the Nashville organizer's name was Jim Lawson, not Lawton, and the Nashville students were engaged in training and planning their own sit-ins in December of 1959, per David Halberstam in The Children.

    As you stated, the Nashville campaign was well-coordinated and quite successful. The success was a tribute to their training, and to the courage of all of the over 100 individuals involved. One great moment from the campaign was student/strategist Diane Nash confronting the mayor of Nashville on the steps of city hall. Nash is a heroine of the Movement who doesn't get mentioned much, but she and other women deserve as much credit as the men. They risked just as much - and went to jail as often.

    For anyone interested in a serious study of the Movement, and interacting with people who were there... I recommend the UU Living Legacy Pilgrimage, a powerful experience!

    1. Thanks for catching my typo. Of course it was Lawson, who I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference some years ago. And the critical word "already" got dropped from that paragraph. I tried to clear that up, too. I hope to profile Diane Nash in the future.