The Greensboro sit-ins were a series of nonviolent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which led to the Woolworth department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States. While not the first sit-ins of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action, and also the most well-known sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, these sit-ins lead to increased national sentiment at a crucial period in US history. The primary event took place at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
While the Greensboro sit-in was the most influential and significant sit-in of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), it was not the first. Under white supremacist oppression, in August of 1939, black attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia, library. In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, as they did in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. A 1958 sit-in in Wichita, Kansas also was successful.
Days before the Woolworth sit-ins, the Greensboro Four (as they would soon be collectively known) were debating on which way would be the best to get the media's attention. The quartet consisted of Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr.. and David Richmond (activist), all four had a few things in common: they were young black college students attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Also, the four men were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his practices in non-violent protests, lastly, they sought to change the racist and discriminatory policies at the local Woolworth in their town of Greensboro, North Carolina. Each of the four men dreamed that one day people would no longer be discriminated against for something as simple as the color of their skin. And with that in mind, they devised a plan. The plan was simplistic, yet nonetheless effective: the four men would occupy seats at the local Woolworth, ask to be served, and when they were inevitably denied service, they would not leave. They would repeat this process day in and day out for as long as it would take. Their thinking was that, if they could disrupt the working hours and the customers enough, the damage to Woolworth profits would cause them to desegregate out of necessity (to keep the business afloat).
Events at Woolworth
On February 1, 1960, at 4:30pm four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. The men, later known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, went to Woolworth's Store, bought toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter at the store with no problems, and then were refused service from the segregated lunch counter when they each asked for a cup of coffee, at the same store. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the black men at the "whites only" counter and store manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave. However, the four freshman stayed until the store closed that night.
The next day, more than twenty black students who had been recruited from other campus groups came to the store to join the sit-in. Students from Bennett College, a college for black women in Greensboro, joined the protest. White customers heckled the black students, who read books and studied to keep busy. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service.
Newspaper reporters and a TV videographer covered the second day of peaceful demonstrations and others in the community learned of the protests. On the third day, more than 60 people came to the Woolworth store. A statement issued by Woolworth national headquarters said the company would "abide by local custom" and maintain its segregated policy.
As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Out-of-state towns such as Lexington, Kentucky, also saw protests.
The movement then spread to other Southern cities including Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee where the students of the Nashville Student Movement had been trained for a sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson and had already started the process when Greensboro occurred. Although the majority of these protests were peaceful, there were instances where protests became violent. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tensions rose between blacks and whites and fights broke out. Another city where sit-ins occurred was Jackson, Mississippi. Students from Tougaloo College staged a sit-in on May 28, 1963. The incident is recorded in the autobiography of one of the members in attendance, Anne Moody. In Coming of Age in Mississippi Moody described the treatment of the whites who were at the counter when they sat down, as well as the formation of the mob in the store and how they managed to finally leave the store.
As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro and students began a far-reaching boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Sales at the boycotted stores dropped by a third, leading the stores' owners to abandon their segregation policies. On Monday, July 25, 1960, after nearly $200,000 in losses due to the demonstrations, store manager Clarence Harris asked 3 black employees of Greensboro sit-ins to change out of work clothes into street clothes and order a meal at the counter. These were the first to be served at the store's lunch counter, an event that received little publicity. The entire Woolworth was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike, although Woolworth lunch counters in other Tennessee cities, such as Jackson, continued to be segregated until around 1965, despite many protests.
Despite sometimes violent reaction to the sit-ins, these demonstrations eventually led to positive results. For example, the sit-ins received significant media and government attention. When the Woolworth sit-in began, the Greensboro newspaper published daily articles on the growth and impact of the demonstration. The sit-ins made headlines in other cities as well, as the demonstrations spread throughout the Southern states. A Charlotte newspaper published an article on February 9, 1960, describing the statewide sit-ins and the resulting closures of dozens of lunch counters. Furthermore, on March 16, 1960, President Eisenhower expressed his concern for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights, saying that he was "deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution." Also, this sit-in was a contributing factor in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In many towns, the sit-ins were successful in achieving the desegregation of lunch counters and other public places. Nashville's students, who started their sit-ins a few days after the Greensboro group, attained desegregation of the downtown department store lunch counters in May, 1960.
The media picked up this issue and covered it nationwide, beginning with lunch counters and spreading to other forms of public accommodation, including transport facilities, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and even museums around the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation in public accommodations.
Over 70,000 people took part in the sit-ins. They even spread to northern states such as Alabama and Ohio and the western state of Nevada. Sit-ins protested about segregated swimming pools, lunch counters, libraries, transport facilities, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches. By simply highlighting such practices, the students can claim to have played a significant part in the history of the civil rights movement.
In 1993, a portion of the lunch counter was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, contains four chairs from the Woolworth counter along with photos of the original four protesters, a timeline of the events, and headlines from the media. The street south of the site was renamed February One Place, in commemoration of the date of the first Greensboro sit-in.
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- 1955 Read's Drug Store sit-in, occurred in Baltimore, Maryland
- 1957 Royal Ice Cream Sit-in, occurred in Durham, North Carolina
- 1958 Dockum Drug Store sit-in, occurred in Wichita, Kansas
- 1958 Oklahoma City sit-ins, occurred in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- 1960 Nashville sit-ins, occurred in Nashville, Tennessee
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