Profile in courage
February 1, 2010 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Fifty years ago today four black students, Joseph A. McNeil, Franklin E. McCain, David L. Richmond and Ezell A. Blair Jr., asked to be served lunch at the Woolworth lunch counter and so began an extended nonviolent sit-in which energized the civil rights movement. Monday the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open in that loacation.
posted by caddis (19 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Related : Piece on the the new Freedom Riders documentary on Democracy Now!
posted by wheelieman at 11:41 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you Joseph A. McNeil, Franklin E. McCain, David L. Richmond and Ezell A. Blair Jr.

A Negro woman kitchen helper walked up, according to the students, and told them, "You know you're not supposed to be in here." She later called them "ignorant" and a "disgrace" to their race.

The dual ideas of "If we just play nice, maybe they'll accept us" and refusal to accept second class citizenship. Still both nonviolent. Thank you. Thank you for sitting in, marching, protesting, pushing, pleading and dying. I am so thankful for you and people like you.
posted by cashman at 11:45 AM on February 1, 2010

An older white woman sat at the lunch counter a few stools down from McCain and his friends.

"And if you think Greensboro, N.C., 1960, a little old white lady who eyes you with that suspicious look … she's not having very good thoughts about you nor what you're doing," McCain says.

Eventually, she finished her doughnut and coffee. And she walked behind McNeil and McCain — and put her hands on their shoulders.

"She said in a very calm voice, 'Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago.'" McCain recalls.
What? Oh, no. No. Just something in my eye. That's all...
posted by brundlefly at 11:50 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are lots of people like the little old white lady (she regrets that they didn't do this 10 years ago???), but very few like McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair.

Stories like this make me try harder to look around me, see what I can do to change what needs changing today, and take action.
posted by sallybrown at 11:54 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a little kid, my mother had an annual tour of our hometown that she liked to take us on. She would troop the five of us around town and tell us the local history of segregation and slavery.

Our first stop was the Star Drug Store, once an operating drug store and malt shop. It was in various stages of openness throughout my youth, mostly maintained as a tourist curiosity. When it was open, my mother would bring us in for a fountain drink and as we waited for the drinks to be ready, she would lift the seats to the stools off one by one to show us how segregationists would refuse service to black folks. If there's nowhere to sit, you can't be served.

After that, she would take us to the Rosenberg Library. We went there often, but on these occasions, she would show us the older part of the library where all the grown up's books were kept. It was a beautiful old structure, cavernous and mysterious like libraries should be. After we were done exploring, she would pile us all back in the car and take us to a small unassuming building across town. It was in the shadow of the high school football stadium, and it was painted a sickly green. It had few windows, and was little larger than a residential house. Then she pointed to the masonry above the front door, which said, "Colored Branch, Rosenberg Library."

The last stop on her tour was always the same. We stopped a few blocks from our house at one of the more historic homes on the island, Ashton Villa. To us it was just a big old house from a time we vaguely understood as prosperous for Galveston. But my mother was on a mission and she marched us all over to a spot right near a brick wall on one side of the house. There was a plaque, but now there is a statue there, and she explained that a hundred years before people were able to eat together, or visit the same libraries, President Lincoln had declared the slaves in the south free. And she told us how they weren't freed immediately, but how it took time. And when the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Texas - she pointed to the spot where the plaque was - this was where it was read.

I'm so grateful that I grew up appreciating how long it had taken to achieve everything that had been done. But I'm also glad that I grew up recognizing how far we still have to go.
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:24 PM on February 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm not black, but my wife is. I have grown up in such blissful ignorance of the kind of trials that black Americans had to deal with only fifty short years ago, that I am occasionally staggered at my own dumb sense of history. My public school almost entirely glossed over black people's slow crawl toward equality, barring some slight nod to Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, and gave me no real sense that the world I'd been born into had ever been that much different than it is right now. No single fact brought this ignorance home to me more forcefully than realizing that if my wife and I had been around when my father was a young man, it would be illegal for she and I to be married. In fact, the Loving v. Virginia case happened only five years before I was born.

I have a hard time even imagining that world. I am humbled and awed at the courage it took, and still takes, to change it.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by Pecinpah at 12:25 PM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had thought about doing a post about this, but you did much better than I would have. Here in Durham, we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of an earlier sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream shop. I'm proud to be from the same state as so many of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and I'm looking forward to visiting the new museum in Greensboro soon.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:37 PM on February 1, 2010

Civil rights : still going strong
Woolworth's : banished to the dustbin of history

Yeah, I think it's pretty clear who won this one.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:52 PM on February 1, 2010

Nice post. This only happened a couple of years before I was born but culturally it seems like eons. It's really hard to comprehend that we had racial segregation in the US within living memory.
posted by octothorpe at 12:55 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It wasn't 50 years ago, but about 45, when I rode a bus to my very first school, where I attended first grade. I can't remember if it was that year or the next, when I was in second grade, that two little African American girls began to ride the bus too . . . and the other kids warned me not to touch anything they had touched, because they'd leave "boogers." Stupid, but very hateful.

It is great to live to see this country change so profoundly and so much for the better. I'm hoping to make it to the day the US majority is of color.
posted by bearwife at 1:03 PM on February 1, 2010

It's really hard to comprehend that we had racial segregation in the US within living memory.

For me, what drove home how recent it all was was visiting the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta and seeing a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. as a child, dressed up like a slave for the film premiere of Gone with the Wind.
posted by sallybrown at 1:08 PM on February 1, 2010

My roommate went to the opening today; can't wait to see it myself. But I'm a bit disappointed the museum's timeline doesn't at least mention that there were a handful of other sit-ins (some successful, even) across the country before Greensboro's. The Greensboro sit-in clearly lit a fire in the South in ways earlier ones hadn't, but there were sit-ins in an Alexandria, VA library in 1939, Durham, NC in 1957 and Wichita and Oklahoma City in 1958. Just for the record.
posted by mediareport at 2:16 PM on February 1, 2010

Pecinpah, the Loving v. Virginia case is what inspired my wife and I to make a sign and head down to the National Equality March last year. It was quite surprising how many folks we had to explain the sign to. Lots of people were shocked that the decision was made in my lifetime (and, ironically, we got married in VA, since it was so much easier than getting hitched in DC).

I had a junior-high teacher who participated in the sit-ins. Amazing what changes in one generation.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:29 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about this a lot today. I'm so glad the museum is finally open. There were a number of times when it didn't look like it was going to happen.

The PBS series Independent Lens did a piece on this called February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four. (Here's a preview on YouTube.) It's worth tracking down.

I live in Greensboro, and I taught at A&T for five years. It's a university that is fiercely proud of its history, and justifiably so. This is the monument of the Greensboro Four in front of the Dudley Building on campus--I'm always moved when I go by there.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by kortez at 2:51 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the last survivor of the “Big Four,” was a Professor of Civil Rights History at my college. I was lucky enough to take his class before he passed away. Week, after amazing, inspiring week, he gave us first hand accounts of his experiences during the civil rights movement. When he got tired of talking (he wasn't well and the class was over three hours long) he showed episodes of Blackside's documentary of the Civil Right's Movement, Eyes on the Prize.

Eyes on the Prize covers the Greensboro sit-ins, in episode 3, Ain’t Scared of your Jails.

I've known lots of people who can't grasp that Jim Crowe and the Civil Right's Movement happened within living memory. Sitting in Dr. Farmer's presence weekly inoculated me of that cognitive dissonance.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:57 PM on February 1, 2010

Civil rights : still going strong

Woolworth's : banished to the dustbin of history

I live about 6 blocks from a Woolworth's. They even have a restaurant, presumably with a lunch counter. The whole store blows, though, it's exclusively low-quality cheap wares, so I haven't bothered to try the restaurant. But it's there.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:15 PM on February 1, 2010

A newspaper column I wrote last year, in which the strategy of non-violence (among other things) is discussed by the surviving members of the Greensboro Four. Also at the link is a nice photo taken by my wife.

I'm a native of this city, but I found my knowledge was limited.

Please forgive the self-quote: "I knew the story of the Sit-ins. I knew the pride this city takes in this piece of local history. But I did not know how the philosophy of passive resistance had come to the store at the corner of South Elm and Sycamore. I looked at myself, and at my own 17-year-old son, and I wondered, where does a college kid find the strength to risk his life for justice?"
posted by Buckley at 4:45 PM on February 1, 2010

I love that Woolworths is long gone from our shores, but the fight for equality retains it's strides form those days.

Now we need to wait for the bigoted and ignorant people from 'those days' to die, and perhaps true equality can commence...
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 7:57 PM on February 1, 2010

Now we need to wait for the bigoted and ignorant people from 'those days' to die, and perhaps true equality can commence...

It isn't that easy. See Lou Dobbs. See the minutemen (read that as "mi-noot," of minor importance; insignificant; trifling).
posted by caddis at 12:20 AM on February 2, 2010

« Older Choice of the Dragon   |   Soft Drinks Around the World Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments