Birth of the sit-in movement, 10 years on (1970)

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Sit-in birthplace monument to progress on Civil Rights

by Terry Wooten

There’s no sign proclaiming the FW Woolworth lunch counter here as the birthplace, 10 years ago today, of the sit-in movement that brought a new way of community life to the dual service and segregated South of the 1960s.

But black and white patrons munching chicken in one of the brightly colored booths at the counter are evidence enough of the success of the sit-in as a form of civil rights protest.

The counter is larger and more modern now than in 1960, “probably to accommodate the new patrons,” laughs Franklin McCain, one of four North Carolina A&T College students who spearheaded the sit-in here on Feb 1, 1960.

Movement begins

About 3:30 pm that afternoon, McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezelle Blair, Jr, all freshmen engineering students, walked into the bustling variety store, unaware they were about to start a movement which would skip through Dixie like a tornado, eventually whisking “White Only” signs from lunch counters from Richmond to New Orleans.

McCain, now an engineer with the Celanese Corp, in Charlotte, NC, recalls that the idea for the Woolworth sit-in was conceived the night before during a bull session in a dormitory room.

“We had been up most of the night talking mostly about this dual service thing,” he said in an interview. “It has hit us all hard at one time or the other. For McNeil, it was an incident at a bus station restaurant; for me, it had been a doughnut shop when I was 10 years old.

“This hurts very much. It raises the question… of you as a fellow human being. It can be a dehumanizing experience.”

McCain said they talked until about 4 am before finally deciding that talk wasn’t enough, that they should do something.

picketers-support-southern-sit-insWoolworth’s was picked because it was a national chain with a paradoxical situation. It served blacks at lunch counters in the North, but not in the South because of “local custom.”

“We felt that if we could go into the store and make purchases at 12 counters, then our money should be just as good at the 13th counter where food was sold,” he said.

McCain and McNeil purchased some merchandise at another counter before going to the snack bar area. They were refused service “with the usual antics” despite their persistence in contending that it was a public counter and that they had receipts for other merchandise bought in the store.

“I don’t mind telling you, I was afraid at first,” the hefty McCain said. “But since I was the biggest, they expected me to go through with it.”

Richmond and Blair joined McCain and McNeil at the counter within a few minutes, and they continued to sit there until the store closed.

Policeman paces aisle

“After the first few minutes, when nothing happened, I began to feel a little better,” McCain said. “Then a husky policeman came in and started pacing up and down the aisle, slapping his nightstick in his hand. But he didn’t say anything to us and finally left.”

The group returned the next day with reinforcements, and the sit-in movement was on its way. It captured the imagination of eager young blacks in the south of 1960, gave them a nonviolent means of protesting the many injustices they felt they had been dealt at such counters.

The sit-in protest spread rapidly, moving first to Durham, NC, then to other cities in North Carolina and other states in and outside the South. Variety store and drugstore lunch counters were the targets primarily, but other firms felt the pressure.

The Greensboro effort was continued throughout the spring semester, eventually resulting in many barriers being lowered in public accommodations here.

McCain said none of the four envisioned their sit-in protest at Woolworth becoming a national movement. “It was just an idea whose time had come,” he said. “It was ripe. The timing was right.”

He insists it was spontaneous, that no organized civil rights group had anything to do with its planning.

McCain, Richmond, McNeil and Blair are all in their late 20s now. All have continued to some degree the involvement in the civil rights struggle to which they committed themselves in 1960.

“I haven’t started another sit-in, or anything as captivating or as appealing to the emotions as that,” McCain said. “But I have tried to help.”

His help has been to less fortunate blacks through night class instruction, through job and college counseling for young Negroes, and in voter registration and education.

Richmond, a painting contractor, is the only one of the four sit-in leaders who has remained in Greensboro. He now belongs to the Chamber of Commerce and often plays a vital role in keeping racial peace.


Calming influence

The night Dr Martin Luther King Jr was killed, Richmond rode with police urging younger and more militant blacks to refrain from violence.

Richmond often has contact with A&T University students, some he terms as “outsiders” paid to come in and cause trouble.

“They talk to me and try to get me to change to their (militant) way of thinking,” the soft-spoken Richmond said. “But I’ll always remain non-violent. I know this is the only way to achieve change…”

Richmond has seen many changes in Greensboro since that February day in 1960. “Every society is always going to have some form of segregation,” he said. “But I know this Greensboro is really putting forth an effort. Many people are trying to solve racial problems before they start.”

He said a disorder at A&T University last spring in which one student was killed and several policemen wounded had prompted some searching questions by both black and white leaders.

City pride cited

Richmond also said most whites here are proud the non-violent type of sit-in began in their city. “I’ve even heard the Chamber of Commerce boast about it,” he said.

He says his role in the sit-in movement hasn’t caused any problems with prospective employers during the years. “It’s often been an asset to me,” he said.

Richmond looks back on the sit-in movement as one which “produced many young adults capable of following their own minds. It was the beginning of something like the pilgrims,” he said.

McNeil, now working with IBM in New York City, feels the sit-ins they started here were instrumental in improving race relations here and elsewhere.

“Looking back,” he explained, “it seems the sit-in not only removed the barriers of public accommodations in Greensboro but I guess they were the impetus for passing the public accommodations law on a national scale.”

Activities limited

McNeil, who just completed six years in the Air Force, said his civil rights activities during the last few years have been indirect, limited by the armed forces affiliation.

Blair, who grew up in Greensboro, now lives in New Bedford, Mass. He works with the Opportunity Industrialization Center, a group which “tries to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

He feels the sit-ins started something which must be finished by all men today.

“I think we have to reflect on the times we live in,” he said. “What was done 10 years ago may not be appropriate for these times.

“I think it is time for all people to get on the side of the righteous if they want to see freedom, justice and equality brought to the country. The way we have to do it is to start with the concept of love, life and the light, and use these as a basis for building this continuation of the dream.”

Working quietly

Blair, like the others, has been working quietly through the years to help in the civil rights movement. He’s done counseling, lectured at colleges, and performed other essential tasks which haven’t been headline-making.

“I’d like to be able to do more for the oppressed than I’m doing,” he said. “But I have to work in the unit I’m best in, play my role to the best of my ability. That’s all I ask of anybody living in these times — for them to do their thing to the best of their ability and do it in truth.”

Blair still sees a long road ahead in the Negro’s fight for equality.

“But the only way to see a change in the country for the betterment of all mankind is to be the change itself,” he said.

“The only way to be the change is for us to get the perfect image in our minds first, then act upon it. That’s what we did in 1960.”

‘Times have changed’

All the men have noted the changes which have come about in the civil rights movement, in themselves, and in the “power structure.” They deny they have changed to fit the mold of the establishment, pointing out they have stuck to nonviolent principles from the beginning. “The times have changed,” one said.

golden-rule-woolworth-counterMcCain and Richmond see a shift in emphasis on goals in the civil rights movement.

“Ten years ago we went out to integrate lunch counters, theaters, and other public places,” said McCain. “We knew exactly what we were after. Things are not as defined in the movement now.”

He thinks the black identity crisis is the best thing to come from the movement recently.

“The Negro, educated and uneducated, has found it’s no longer a crime, sin, or a disgrace to be black,” he said.

The four men got together in Greensboro several years ago, and were planning a 10th anniversary meeting this year.

“We reminisced the whole movement the last time we were together,” McCain said. “We were pretty well satisfied with what we got — for all people, not just the blacks.”

“We probably helped a lot of balance sheets in the South by providing them business they hadn’t been getting. We also cut the throats of many small, black-owned cafes that had a captive Negro market. But in any movement like this, somebody gets his toes stepped on for the good of the greater number.

“If we had it to do over, I don’t think there could have been any better place to start than with the sit-in.”

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