Courage at the Greensboro Lunch Counter

From Smithsonian:

Black On February 1, 1960, four young African-American men, freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, entered the Greensboro Woolworth’s and sat down on stools that had, until that moment, been occupied exclusively by white customers. The four—Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., Joseph McNeil and David Richmond—asked to be served, and were refused. But they did not get up and leave. Indeed, they launched a protest that lasted six months and helped change America. A section of that historic counter is now held by the National Museum of American History, where the chairman of the division of politics and reform, Harry Rubenstein, calls it “a significant part of a larger collection about participation in our political system.” The story behind it is central to the epic struggle of the civil rights movement. William Yeingst, chairman of the museum’s division of home and community life, says the Greensboro protest “inspired similar actions in the state and elsewhere in the South. What the students were confronting was not the law, but rather a cultural system that defined racial relations.”

Joseph McNeil, 67, now a retired Air Force major general living on Long Island, New York, says the idea of staging a sit-in to protest the ingrained injustice had been around awhile. “I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and even in high school, we thought about doing something like that,” he recalls. After graduating, McNeil moved with his family to New York, then returned to the South to study engineering physics at the technical college in Greensboro. On the way back to school after Christmas vacation during his freshman year, he observed the shift in his status as he traveled south by bus. “In Philadelphia,” he remembers, “I could eat anywhere in the bus station. By Maryland, that had changed.” And in the Greyhound depot in Richmond, Virginia, McNeil couldn’t buy a hot dog at a food counter reserved for whites. “I was still the same person, but I was treated differently.” Once at school, he and three of his friends decided to confront segregation. “To face this kind of experience and not challenge it meant we were part of the problem,” McNeil recalls.

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