History of the Greensboro Four

Civil Rights Movement: Sitting For a Cause

 The Sit-In movement was not just about some friends wanting to grab a snack from their local deli. This movement was about the mistreated African Americans waiting to be served their civil rights. This format of protest became popular all across America and quickly gained traction to seize the rights for African Americans. Starting with the Greensboro four in North Carolina, and spreading to places such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida, the sit-in movement shaped America by sparking an interest in striving for civil rights for all.

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The father of all sit-ins, the Greensboro four, was brought about by four college students who decided they had enough. On February 1, 1960, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), and Joe McNeil, four African American students from North Carolina A&T State University, staged a sit-in in Greensboro at Woolworth’s. Woolworth’s was a retail store that segregated the lunch counter, and these four students seized the opportunity to make change. They planned daily to come to the diner and sit down at the counter to receive service, however they would only receive backlash from the anti-protestors. They would be beaten and yelled at to move, but they stayed strong and kept their protest non-violent by not returning any punches. When they were denied service, they would not move, they would just sit there quietly and read or do homework. The sit-in movement also won support from older established civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)[1].

 The sit-in movement gained much traction, so much as CORE sent field workers to help lawyers. The SCLC provided support for the sit-in movement under the direction of Ella Baker. Baker organized the first Sit-In Leadership Conference on April 15, 1960, at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She invited students from 40 southern colleges and 19 northern campuses to come listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., share his message of nonviolence[2]. The sit-in movement gained so much popularity not because people knew they would gain their rights, but because they knew they would show a younger generation that something can be done, they only wanted to spark a great wildfire of civil rights.

 Only 12 days after the Greensboro four (February 13, 1960), in downtown Nashville, students from a local college planned to have a sit-in for the civil rights movement. These students went to stores such as Woolworth’s and likewise. After buying products from the stroe the sat down at the diner. Of course these students were denied service but they just kept sitting peacefully and they continued to do so at many other locations throughout the city. However, on February 27th, the students experienced their first violent response. The protestors were attacked by pro-segregation whites and the police had to step in. But the thing is, the police arrested 81 protestors but no attacker was arrested. The violence brought an extreme level of racial tension to Nashville. In fact, so bad that Mayor Ben West appointed a biracial committee to investigate segregation in the city. This committee ultimately suggested the diners should be divided into black and white sections. The National Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC), whom worked with the Nashville student movement, denied that proposal for obvious reasons. To continue the violence, there was a bombing at the defense attorney’s house who was representing many protestors. The bombing at Z. Alexander Lobby’s house sparked a massive march of 2,500 protestors to the city hall looking for change. The mayor was overwhelmed by questions and eventually he gave in; stating that he believes that the diners in Nashville should be desegregated. Eventually after weeks of meetings and negotiations, on May 10th, six diners would open up to all races. The Nashville campaign became a model for other civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s[3].

An example of another sit-in that was brought about, due to the Greensboro four, was the sit-in planned in Jacksonville, Florida. Students from a local high school and Edward Waters College, were the first to organize a sit-in for the city. On Saturday, August 13th (1960), eighty-two members of the Youth Council survey entered a downtown store and made small purchases at various counters around the store. They then approached the eighty-four-seat lunch counter reserved for white patrons, and attempted to order lunch[4]. Their goal was to keep doing this until the business was forced to serve them due to heavy loss of business. The business even advertised to limit the amount of ‘demonstrators’ into a store at a time. Of course the ‘demonstrators’ did not adhere to that rule. After two weeks of non stop harassment and violence from anti-protestors, the white community took action. From a nearby department store, over fifty people bought ax handles. When a group of Youth Council activists left a local church to go downtown, a group of white men wielding ax-handles stopped them in their path, causing the group to scatter. The Vice President of the council and approximately eight other activists, arrived at Woolworth’s, where men beat them as they tried to sit at the counter. On the same day, thirty ‘demonstrators’ had just left a store and were on their way to other stores for a sit-in; However after immediately leaving the one store they were met with an angry white mob with ax handles and baseball bats. The white mob attacked every African American in sight. A local black gang, that had no affiliation with demonstrators, stepped in to fight against the mob. While this fight was going on, Klansmen were attacking a huge group of three-thousand peaceful protestors. This violence would not stop, a black man was shot and killed later that night, two others suffered bullet wounds, and someone stabbed a white teenager. Police arrested sixty-two people, forty-eight of whom were African Americans[5]. The violence that occured on that Saturday would be named “Ax Handle Saturday”. That violence also happened to mark the end of peaceful sit-ins. The next spring would be the complete end of all downtown lunch-diner segregation (not including restaurants).

It had been long overdue to give African Americans civil rights, and the only way they could get them was by action. Sitting in segregated diners was the beginning. The sit-ins would be the voice heard around the globe and it gained popularity quick; But also gained hatred quick as well. However, the resilience of the mistreated African Americans proved to be overpowering against racist America. The eventual change from “Racist America” to “America: Land of the Free” was brought about from people who take action, such as the Greensboro four or Martin Luther King Jr. The action being described needs to be perceived with a non-violent ideal. The use of violence for action proves itself unsuccessful and completely unnecessary. For example, in “ax handle saturday” anti-protestors used violence to stop peaceful protest, by doing that they unwittingly set their push for a segregated America up for disaster. The media would show their violence and horrifying displays of wrong action, and prove themselves morally incorrect. Allowing for witnesses of the horrors wanting to help the oppressed. The more witnesses and media, the more progress or traction towards change.

 In summary, the Greensboro four started a massive trend in a style of protest and it caught on real quick in many major cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida. These sit-ins throughout America have not only desegregated diners, but also sparked a national interest for civil rights.

Works Cited:

[1] Harris, Gloria. “Lunch at Woolworth’s.” Cobblestone, April 2008, 8+. General Reference Center GOLD (accessed April 15, 2019).

[2] Harris, Gloria. “Lunch at Woolworth’s.”

[3] Momodu, Samuel. “Nashville Sit-Ins (1960) • BlackPast.” BlackPast. January 30, 2019. Accessed April 27, 2019.

[4] Roseberry-Polier, Alison. “Global Nonviolent Action Database.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. January 30, 2011. Accessed April 24, 2019.

[5] Roseberry-Polier, Alison. “Global Nonviolent Action Database.”