Late Monday afternoon, February 1, 1960, at a lunch counter in Greensboro (picture), North Carolina,
four black college students ignited* one of the largest of all Afro-American protest movements. The initial spark of the movement was a simple, impulsive act of defiance*, one that required no special skills or resources. Planned the previous night, the "sit-in" — as it would be called — was not the product of radical intellectual ferment*. Rather, it grew out of "bull sessions"* involving college freshmen who were, in most respects, typical southern black students of the time, politically unsophisticated* and socially conventional. The four students would be influenced by the decade of social struggle that unexpectedly followed their protest far more than they affected the course of that struggle. Nonetheless, the initial sit-in contained the seeds of radicalism that would flower in SNCC*, the principal organization to emerge from the black student sit-ins of 1960.
The four students, like many other young activists of the 1960s, acted on the basis of suppressed resentments* that preceded the development of an ideological rationale* for protest. Without an organizational structure and without a coherent set of ideas to guide their actions, Greensboro students were determined to break with the past. Only after their isolated protest had-provided the stimulus for an intense, sometimes chaotic process of political education within the southern struggle would the four students become fully aware of the significance of what they had done. In the beginning they only spoke of a modest desire: to drink a cup of coffee, sitting down.
The initial sit-in was a tentative* challenge to Jim Crow. Joseph McNeil and Izell Blair, roommates at the predominantly black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, along with two other students, Franklin McCain and David Richmond, purchased a few items at Greensboro's downtown F. W. Woolworth store (picture 0f 2008)
and then sat down at the lunch counter reserved by custom for whites. They asked to be served but were refused. When a waitress asked them to leave, they explained politely that as they had bought items in other sections of the store, they should be allowed to sit on the stools rather than stand. They received no sympathy from a black woman who worked behind the counter. "You are stupid, ignorant!" she chastised them. "You're dumb! That's why we can't get anywhere today. You know you are supposed to eat at the other end." Although refused service, the four students became more confident as they observed the lack of forceful opposition by the store employees. When informed that the four students were continuing to sit at the lunch counter, the store manager merely ordered his employees to ignore them. The students had expected to be arrested, but instead they discovered a tactic that not only expressed their long-suppressed anger but also apparently did not provoke severe retaliation* from whites. Now it came to me all of a sudden," McCain remembered thinking. "Maybe they can't do anything to us. Maybe we can keep it up."
They did. The four remained on the stools for almost an hour, until the store closed. After returning to campus, they contacted the student body president and recruited more students for another sit-in. The following morning a group of thirty students returned to the store and occupied the lunch counter. There were no confrontations, but the second sit-in, which lasted about two hours, attracted the attention of local reporters. A national news service carried an account of the protest, mentioning a group of "well-dressed Negro college students" who ended their sit-in with a prayer. On Wednesday morning a still larger group of students occupied most of the sixty-six seats at the lunch counter. In the afternoon three white students from Greensboro College joined them. Officials at North Carolina A. & T. resisted attempts by state officials to force them to restrict the activities of their students and by Thursday morning hundreds of black students had been drawn into the expanding protest. Many white youths had also gathered in the downtown section of Greensboro, cursing and threatening the black protesters and attempting to hold seats for white patrons. By the end of the week, after continued disruption of business activities and a telephoned bomb threat, the store manager decided to close the store. The mayor of Greensboro then called upon black students and business leaders to forgo temporarily "individual rights and financial interests" while city officials sought "a just and honorable resolution" of the controversy. The demonstrators, by this time organized as the Students' Executive Committee for Justice, agreed to halt the protests for two weeks to give local leaders a chance to find a solution.
Although the Greensboro sit-ins were discontinued temporarily, students at nearby black colleges followed news accounts of the protest and quickly organized sit-ins.
Source: In Struggle, SNCC and the Black awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard UP, 1981, pp. 9-10
* to ignite - entfachen
* defiance - Trotz, offener Ungehorsam
* ferment - Ferment, Unruhe
* bull session - informal conversation
* unsophisticated - schlicht, undifferenziert
* SNCC - The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; often pronounced "snick") was one of the most important organizations of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
* suppressed resentment - unterdrückter Unmut
* rationale - Begründung, Grundprinzip
* tentative - zaghaft
* retaliation - Vergeltung
1. Desribe what happened at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greenboro in teh afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960 in connection with the four black students.
2. Was their action planned or organized? Why were they successful?
3. In carrying out their protests, who might have been their example?
4. Even before 1960 blacks were successful in their fight for equal rights. Do you know of any example of their success? Also describe its effects.
5. Describe everyday life of blacks before 1950.