The world we live in today is drastically different than the world our parents and grandparents lived in just 60 years ago.
Sure, there are some who insist on claiming that we haven’t changed in that time, but what began on February 1st, 1960 – exactly 57 years ago today – in Greensboro, North Carolina, tells us all that we need to know about the strides we have taken.
On that cold winter Monday, four young black men, students at North Carolina A&T, walked into F.W. Woolworth Company in Greensboro and purchased some miscellaneous items; a tube of toothpaste, paper and colored pencils for homework, nothing that totaled more than a single dollar.
Once they had paid for their items and received their receipts from the cashier, they turned towards Woolworth’s lunch counter, a long bar with swivel stools.
Unable to find four stools together, they split up – Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil sat together on one end, while David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr. sat on the other.
As expected, a waitress walked over and told them, “We can’t serve you.”
McCain, with his receipts from his earlier purchase in hand, politely said to the waitress, “I would beg to disagree. You do serve us here.”
A manager then came over to, again, ask the young men to leave.
Again, the Greensboro Four didn’t move.
A police officer stood defiantly between McCain and McNeil, patting his nightstick against the palm of his hand in order to intimidate the young men.
Again, the Greensboro Four didn’t move.
Throughout the encounter, the other guests inside Woolworth’s began to clear out, and the police officer position himself in a corner, staring the men down, nightstick still in hand.
Undeterred, and inspired by the non-violent protest practices of Martin Luther King Jr., these four young men quietly and peacefully remained in their seats.
What transpired over the next five months, three weeks and three days, simply because four young black men from North Carolina took a seat, was one of the most instrumental and well-known series of sit-ins throughout the entire Civil Rights Movement.
The day after the Greensboro Four made their original stand, 20 more students from various colleges made their way to Woolworth’s in order to take a seat and ask to be served.
By the fourth day, more than 300 people were taking part, expanding the peaceful protest to Greensboro’s Kress store.
Finally, on Monday, July 25, 1960, store manager Clarence Harris asked three of the store’s black employees to change out of their work clothes, sit at the counter and order a meal, making them the first black Americans to ever be served at a Woolworth lunch counter.
When the Greensboro Four sat down that cold February day, they had no idea their actions would inspire statewide sit-ins, leading to many more such peaceful protests throughout the south.
And surely, they had no idea that by 1993, a portion of that lunch counter would be acquired by the Smithsonian Institute, and would be there to this day as a monument to their courage and conviction.
Many people, both black and white, took part in those Greensboro sit-ins, but with 57 years of history now standing between the past and the present, there are few who can give vivid first-hand accounts of what transpired.
One who can, however, Clarance Henderson, who still lives in North Carolina to this day.
On February 2, 1960, Mr. Henderson, then a student at NC A&T, was one of the 20 individuals who participated in the second day of the Greensboro sit-ins.
“As time evolved, I understood that sitting at the counter was actually a way to defend America’s freedom, make sure that all people are free, because the more people that we have free, the freer we are,” Henderson told the Winston-Salem Journal back in 2013.
Finances didn’t afford Henderson the opportunity to live on campus, so he wasn’t aware of the first day of the sit-ins until one of the Greensboro Four, Ezell Blair, his friend since first grade, told him about what had transpired.
“I was in the (student) lounge, and Ezell came down and told me what they had done the first day and asked me would I want to participate, and I told him yes,” Henderson recalled. “So we walked downtown and marched into Woolworth’s.”
Henderson, a Veteran of the United States Army, is now retired, but continues to fight for liberty, and has become one of our state’s most prominent Conservative activists.
“We are being regulated to the point that the person out here that is enterprising has a real challenge to be successful because of interference of an organized federal government which is sitting in Washington,” Henderson said. “How can they know what is going on in Greensboro or Winston-Salem, North Carolina? It is literally impossible. So it needs to be more that the state does more regulating than anybody else.”
February 1, 1960 is a day that will live on history, thanks to the Greensboro Four and the many brave individuals, like Clarance Henderson, who joined the cause in the following days.
They’ve all led different lives, and have gone on to fight for different causes, but their actions throughout the course of those five weeks, three months, and three days brought them together, and made them all heroes.
As a nation, it’s clear we still have work to do when it comes to healing the wounds of the past, but the strides we have made, many because the Greensboro Four took a seat, have forever changed the world.