FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY, four eighteen-year-old African Americans protested segregated seating by refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil took seats at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter, ordered coffee, and — as expected — received no service. A white waitress told them, “I’m sorry but we don’t serve colored here.”
The Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, remained in their seats for another 40 minutes, left when the store closed, and returned the next day with about 20 more students. On the sixth day of the Woolworth’s sit-in, 1,000 protesters, many of them white, crowded into the store, and the anti-segregation sit-in movement spread to 70 other Southern cities that had whites-only seating and service arrangements.
In May, students in Nashville succeeded in desegregating the Tennessee town, and in July, Woolworth’s succumbed to the sit-in pressure and desegregated all its counters throughout the South.
There had been at least 16 largely ineffective sit-ins at various locations in the South before the Greensboro protest. Many, including Dr. Martin Luther King, credited young people for making the new wave of sit-ins succeed. While visiting a sit-in at a Woolworths in Durham, North Carolina, King said, “What is new in your fight is that it was initiated, led, and sustained by students … you now take your honored place in the world-wide struggle for freedom.”