Although the actions of Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond lack the historical significance it deserves, they have continued to gain commendations whenever their efforts come to mention.
On February 1, 1960, four years before then American president, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to end the segregation institutionalized by Jim Crow laws, four Black college freshmen staged what is today known as the Greensboro Sit-In.
Congress would later pass a bill to abolish slavery in the United States on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865 – and many critics believe the actions of these young Black college freshmen influenced Congress to pass the bill.
On the fateful day of February 1, 1960, right in the heart of the Jim Crow Laws, the four Black college freshmen walked into a "whites-only" Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and politely asked for service after taking their seats.
As was the case in America at that time, the white waiter refused and suggested they order a take-out meal from the "stand-up" counter, reminding them that only white people were allowed to eat-in.
The students did not budge, and the issue was taken to the store manager, who approached the students and asked them to leave; but they refused to give up their seats even after an armed policeman intervened.
According to history, this was not the first time lunch counter sit-ins had taken place in America. Still, the four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University drew national attention to the cause.
The students refused to leave, forcing the store owner to close the store early, and the students left—with the rest of the customers. 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, but a student movement was also galvanized.
Speaking on the effect of the action by the four students, Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor said; "The sit-ins establish a crucial kind of leadership and organizing of young people, 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."
When interviewed, the Greensboro Four revealed that the sit-in wasn't a random act of rebellion, but the result of months of planning.
The students received guidance from renowned activists and collaborated with students from Greensboro's all-women's Bennett College before embarking on the action. They also took inspiration from civil rights causes of years earlier, including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.
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.
"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 complicated than that," Guzmán says. The movement was "about simple dignity, respect, access, equal opportunity, and most importantly, the legal and constitutional concerns."
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