On February 1, 1960, four Black college freshmen, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond, sat down at a "whites-only" Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and politely asked for service. The white waiter refused and suggested they order a take-out meal from the "stand-up" counter. But the students did not budge. The store manager then approached the men, asking them to leave. But they did not move. They also did not give up their seats when a police officer arrived and menacingly slapped his nightstick against his hand directly behind them.
While lunch counter sit-ins had taken place before, the four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University drew national attention to the cause. By simply remaining in their seats peacefully and quietly, they flummoxed the staff and left them unsure on how to enforce their “whites-only” rule. Eventually the manager closed the store early and the men left—with the rest of the customers.
It was a small victory—and one that would build. The Greensboro Four’s efforts inspired a sit-in movement that eventually spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Not only were lunch counters across the country integrated one by one, a student movement was galvanized.
“The sit-ins establish a crucial kind of leadership and organizing of young people,” says Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor. “They mean that young people are going to be one of the major driving forces in terms of how the civil rights movement is going to unfold.”
Greensboro Sit-In Took Months of Planning
The Greensboro sit-in wasn’t a random act of rebellion, but the result of months of planning. The students had received guidance from mentor activists and collaborated with students from Greensboro's all-women's Bennett College. They also took inspiration from civil rights causes of years earlier, including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.
One member of the Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, resolved to integrate lunch counters after a 1959 trip to New York, a city where he hadn’t encountered Jim Crow laws. Upon his return to North Carolina, the Greensboro Trailways Bus Terminal Cafe denied him service at its lunch counter, making him determined to fight segregation. McNeil worked in the university library with a fellow activist, Eula Hudgens, who encouraged him to protest. Hudgens had participated in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation against racial segregation on interstate buses. This was a forerunner to the 1961 Freedom Rides, just as the 1942 sit-in at the Jack Spratt Coffee House in Chicago was a forerunner to the Greensboro sit-in of 1960.
“There were also sit-ins in Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri,” says John L. Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. “They were taking place in a lot of places before Greensboro.”
The 'Bennett Belles' Join the Sit-Ins
In late 1959, the Greensboro Four participated in NAACP meetings at Bennett College, where they collaborated with the women students known as the Bennett Belles on a plan. The Belles resolved to serve as look-outs when the four men took their seats at the lunch counter on the first day.
“They had a strong Black community in Greensboro that was steeped in the struggle and willing to support young people by way of moral and financial support,” says Prairie View A&M University History Professor Will Guzmán.
Another critical part of the protest was looping in the media. Multiple lunch counter sit-ins had taken place in the Midwest, East Coast and South in the 1940s and 1950s, but these demonstrations didn’t garner national attention. The Greensboro Four wanted their protest to get recognition, so before heading to Woolworth’s on February 1, they arranged for Ralph Johns, a white businessman and activist, to alert the press about their plans.
“This is the real beginnings of TV media; people can see the sit-in and imagine how they would do it themselves,” said Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
The Sit-In Movements Spreads
Word quickly spread about the Greensboro sit-in, and both North Carolina A&T and Bennett College students took part in the sit-in the next day. As the week unfolded, dozens of young people, including students from the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, flocked to lunch counters and asked to be served.
“We even had people who saw the sit-ins that were taking place at the lunch counter drive from other states to come down here,” Swaine says.
The sit-ins not only attracted new protesters, they also drew counter-protesters who showed up to harass, insult and assault them. But the acts of intimidation didn’t stop the movement from building. After nearly a week of protests, approximately 1,400 students showed up to the Greensboro Woolworth to demonstrate.
Lunch counter sit-ins then moved beyond Greensboro to North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Durham and Winston-Salem. Police arrested 41 students for trespassing at a Raleigh Woolworth. About a dozen Bennett Belles were also arrested at area sit-ins.
As demonstrations spread to 13 states, the focus of the sit-ins expanded, with students not only protesting segregated lunch counters but also segregated hotels, beaches and libraries.
Success at Greensboro Sparks More Student Activism
It took months, but on July 25, 1960, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was finally integrated. Counters in other cities did the same in subsequent months. In addition to desegregating dining establishments, the sit-ins led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh. Activist Ella Baker, then director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized the youth-centered group’s first meeting.
“SNCC was pivotal in pushing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to join them in integrating the cafeteria at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta in 1960,” Guzmán says. SNCC also “pushed King to take a more forceful stance against the war in Vietnam in 1967 and popularized the slogan ‘Black Power!’ in 1966.”
SNCC activists such as John Lewis took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1963 Freedom Summer effort. They also worked with the NAACP to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed.
“It may be easy to think that the sit-ins were about eating next to white people or about ‘a hotdog and a coke,’ but, of course, it was more complex than that,” Guzmán says. The movement was “about simple dignity, respect, access, equal opportunity, and most importantly the legal and constitutional concerns.”