On Feb. 1, 1960, four students of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, walked into Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C. and triggered a movement that spread across the nation. The “Greensboro Four,” Joseph McNeil, left, Franklin McCain, Bill Smith and Clarence Henderson are seated at that lunch counter. (AFRO archive photo)

By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor

Imagine you are visiting your local Walmart. You shop around and make a purchase, but now you’ve worked up an appetite. You head over to the food court but unfortunately for you, the only section permitted for Blacks includes a few small stand up tables next to the trash can; while the “White’s only” section is vast, elegant and pristine.

Now imagine that the year is 1960 and segregation is “normal,” so while this difference is completely unfair, it is also completely legal. 

On Feb. 1, 1960, four Black men in Greensboro staged a sit-in that would go down in history as another notch on the belt of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil were students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University when they sat at the “White’s only” lunch counter in the Woolworth Company store. The young men, who quickly became known as the “Greensboro Four” refused to leave, even after being denied service. 

During a documentary chronicling the event, an older McNeil described his motivation for the sit-in. “I reacted to the Jim Crow south with anger,” McNeil explained. “I did not believe for one minute that I was a second-class citizen or that I was inferior in any way to Whites, greens, whatever. I couldn’t live the lie. We decided to take a stand.”

Woolworth’s was a popular “five and dime” store at that time, and the Greensboro location boasted a dining area featuring a 66-seat lunch counter. The store’s prices were affordable, so it attracted customers from all races. However, that lunch counter was reserved for White people. 

First, the group shopped around and purchased small trinkets as proof that they were paying customers. Then, according to McNeil, they all came to the lunch counter, sat down and asked for a cup of coffee. “The store manager told us that he wasn’t going to serve us. This large establishment grossly underestimated our anger and our ability to hang in there,” McNeil explained.

“Well we’re going to come back and keep coming back until you decide to serve us,” said McNeil. From that point on, the sit-ins grew larger and larger. However, their progress was met with quick resistance. “We remained nonviolent, but on the third day it started to get rough,” McNeil recalled. 

Obviously, the authorities were on the scene, but the police couldn’t make any arrests in the store due to a policy prohibiting law enforcement to intervene until the store was closed by the general manager or otherwise.  

This sit-in wouldn’t have been possible without the help of so many others, Black and White, who tipped off news stations and the press and made an overall fuss about the situation. In the following weeks, Blacks in Nashville got wind of what happened and decided to stage a sit-in in their city. Before they knew it, there were sit-ins and other demonstrations popping up all over. The movement spread to 55 cities across 13 states and will forever be a part of Black history.

After the Greensboro Four made their first successful sit-in demonstration, many other Blacks joined the movement. Courtesy of YouTube/HistoryChannel)

By the end of the summer that same year, and particularly while the college students were still on break, the Woolworth’s integrated its lunch counter.

This sit-in was one several key events that brought national attention to the injustices against African Americans. Decades later, in an interview with Joseph McNeil for the Smithsonian Magazine. McNeil was asked if he ever returned to Woolworth’s to eat after the sit-ins ended. He explains that he went later that year, but apparently the food was terrible so he didn’t go back.