The ‘60’s were a time of change in America. John F. Kennedy became the youngest man elected President—and was subsequently assassinated; Martin Luther King talked about his dream of equality—he was also assassinated; the United States entered the Vietnam War; rock ‘n’ roll from England exploded onto the scene—the sixties saw many changes to the United States. One of those changes started as a protest by several African-American men who were tired of the discrimination.
Woolworth’s had a lunch counter with stools. They would serve food and drinks there and people could sit and chat about the weather, politics, whatever took their fancy. People could sit and talk and enjoy their food, if they were white. If they were black, however, they had to stand and stand away from the white people who were trying to enjoy their lunches.
On February 1, 1960, four black college students had decided they’d had enough. Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, college students at North Carolina’s Agricultural and Technical University, walked into Woolworth’s and sat down on those “whites only” stools. The simple, defiant act of sitting down made national news.
The four knew that they’d be refused service. They weren’t there to eat so much as they were to make a point. The manager of the Woolworth’s decided to have police come to the store, just in case there was a violent outbreak. Much to his surprise, there was not. The next day, another 23 black men and 4 black women showed up and sat down at the counter. By February 5, the peaceful protest saw 300 black students at Woolworth’s and Kress 5 & 10, half a block away1
By February 5, the four men who’d started the protest were able to see just how impactful their act of civil defiance had been. Across the southern states, other sit-ins and boycotts began—all in an effort to spur on civil rights. According to the Wikipedia article on this event, McCain is quoted with the following: “Some way through, an old white lady, who must have been 75 or 85, came over and put her hands on my shoulders and said, 'Boys, I am so proud of you. You should have done this 10 years ago.”2
The sit-ins gained national coverage and brought the civil rights movement to the forefront. On March 16, President Eisenhower recognized and supported the sit-ins and boycotts, officially, by saying he was “deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights…of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”3 With Presidential support and a growing number of sit-ins and boycotts, many cities in North Carolina and other states throughout the South began desegregation efforts. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thus requiring desegregation of public facilities. According to the Sit-ins website, McCain said that he remembered how hard it was to get people to stay for long hours. They would show up and support the protest until the reporters left, or until they grew uncomfortable with the stares and heckling. The original four men felt so passionately about desegregation, they were willing to do whatever it took to make it happen. Until that Woolworth’s store closed in 1990, commemorative sit-ins occurred every February 1 in honor of the four men who helped change a nation.4
For more information on this event, please visit the following links: