by Dr. Kelton Edmonds Special to The New Journal and Guide
February 1, 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of the launch of the historic Sit-in Movement, when four African-American freshmen from North Carolina A&T State College (now University) in Greensboro, NC sparked the non-violent and student-led wave of protests that ultimately resulted in the desegregation of F.W. Woolworth and other racially discriminatory stores.
The brave freshmen from NCA&T, who would later be adorned with the iconic label of the “Greensboro Four”, consisted of David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan). On February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four bought items at Woolworth’s, then sat at the ‘whites-only’ lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. Although waitresses refused to serve them, in accordance with the store’s racist policies, the four would continue their protest and in the following days and weeks would be joined by more students from NCA&T, the nearby all-women’s HBCU Bennett College and students from other nearby colleges and high schools.
In a 2003 interview, Khazan (formerly Blair, Jr.) reflected on the daily threats of violence and verbal assaults from White antagonists, as one caller reached him on the dorm hall phone and bellowed, “…executioners are going to kill you niggers if you come back down here tomorrow, you and your crazy friends.”
White student allies who protested alongside Black students were not immune from death threats either, as Khazan recalled a White student protester explaining that their college president was threatened by an anonymous caller saying, “…if those nigger loving bitches come downtown again and sit with those niggers, we going to kill them and burn your school down.”
The Greensboro students persisted nevertheless, and soon, the protests that flooded the lunch counters of the segregated store would spread to other cities throughout the South beginning in North Carolina cities such as Elizabeth City, Charlotte and Winston-Salem, in addition to cities in Virginia.
The Legacies And Larger Significance Of The 1960 Sit-in Movement, Sparked In Greensboro
Similar to the successful 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the students’ triumphant coordinated protests in 1960 further demonstrated how mass economic boycotts could lead to desegregationist social victories, particularly when targeting businesses that relied heavily on Black patronage. The Greensboro Four only set out to challenge and change the discriminatory practices of the local Woolworth’s, yet their movement expanded exponentially to ultimately bring about the desegregation of all Woolworth’s lunch counters in the country.
The students of the Civil Rights era suddenly possessed a new weapon, the mass sit-in, which would continue to be used in Greensboro and around the country in various forms. The sit-ins combined with the freedom rides led to Black students establishing their unique value and niche to the larger Civil Rights Movement. Black students understood their unique, collective power and desired to harness their efforts under a national apparatus. Consequently, another major legacy of the student movement that emerged in Greensboro was it also directly led to the birth of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April of 1960 in nearby Raleigh, NC on the campus of Shaw University.
SNCC would soon emerge as one of the most formidable organizations of the decade, elevating students to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.
After marveling at the magnitude and effectiveness of the student protesters during the sit-ins, major Civil Rights organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC and CORE pressured the students to collapse their meteoric movement into the youth wing of one of their institutions under their supervision.
The students however, decided to remain autonomous and formulate their own student-led organization, while still adhering to non-violent principles. The students’ decision to remain student-led received noteworthy support from several key adult Civil Rights leaders in Greensboro in addition to Ella Baker from SCLC.
SNCC would prove to be an indispensable organization that not only championed directly confronting Jim Crow racism on numerous levels through organized protests and massive voter registration drives, but SNCC also further popularized the concept of participatory democracy and was the first major Civil Rights organization to evolve toward seriously embracing principles of Black power ideology under Stokely Carmichael’s (Kwame Ture) leadership in 1966.
Another legacy of the 1960 sit-in movement was that it offered the inspiration and blueprint for the second and more colossal wave of mass student protest in Greensboro in 1963. The 1963 student demonstrations in Greensboro would be even more locally successful than their predecessor as they desegregated all remaining businesses in downtown Greensboro and the student leader of the second wave of sit-ins, Jesse Jackson, would parlay his leadership in the student protests onto the national Civil Rights stage throughout the 20th century. Similar to Greensboro, other cities throughout the South would experience a second and even third wave of similar protests to successfully desegregate other remaining businesses throughout the decade.
Ultimately, all mass student protests of the 1960s and thereafter owe their viability to the student-led Greensboro protests of 1960, including student Black power activists and anti-war activists of the late 60s and 70s. Although its origins predate 1960, even one of the largest and most noteworthy national student organizations, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), owe its resurgence and major elements of its effectiveness to the spark ignited by the Greensboro Four on February 1, 1960.
Even recent episodes of student activism exhibited in the Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014-15, as well as the student protests led by Black students at the University of Missouri in 2015, which ultimately led to the resignation of the chancellor, have attributes that correlate to the 1960 student movement. The student movement of 1960, ignited by the Greensboro Four, provided a blueprint for future students to build upon, perfect, and utilize in a variety of ways for a plethora of circumstances.
Most importantly, what happened in 1960 showed young people the power they possessed to address their grievances and ultimately bring about change on both local and national levels if they organized themselves and remained committed.
Dr. Kelton Edmonds is a Professor of History at California University of Pennsylvania. His primary research is on Black Student Activism in the United States. He is a native of Portsmouth, VA and graduated from I.C. Norcom High school in 1993. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Secondary Education-History from North Carolina A&T State University. He earned his Ph.D. in 20th Century US History from the University of Missouri-Columbia.