Fifty years ago tomorrow, four black freshmen at A and T College in Greensboro, N.C., helped change American history. They walked into the Woolworth’s department store, purchased school supplies and toothpaste, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve Negroes,” they were told. “But you served us at the other counters,” they responded.
Refusing to leave, they opened their school books and started to study.
Four hours later, the store closed and the students returned to campus, where word of their protest quickly spread.
The next day, the four returned to Woolworth’s, this time accompanied by 19 of their classmates. The day after that there were 66, the next day 100. On the fifth day, 1,000 Greensboro blacks, of all ages, descended on the central business district until the entire city closed down. Within eight weeks, similar sit-ins occurred in 54 cities in nine different states of the Old Confederacy.
The Greensboro sit-ins — a simple act of dramatizing the moral absurdity of segregation — led, over the next five years, to the dismantling of Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the re-enfranchisement of black citizens with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
How exactly did this happen?
Some have described the sit-in movement as akin to an “immaculate conception,” a sudden, nearly total reversal of decades of accommodation and subservience by a new generation freed from the constraints of the past.
In truth, blacks had been fighting Jim Crow for decades, and nowhere did resistance exist more vigorously than in Greensboro. There, in 1943, Ella Baker formed the NAACP Youth Group, which many of the sit-in demonstrators joined in the ’50s to talk about carrying forward the struggle. At youth group meetings, the students learned about Dr. David Jones, the president of Bennett, Greensboro’s all-black women’s college, who insisted on hiring desegregated construction crews to build new dormitories and who invited Eleanor Roosevelt, as first lady, to speak to a black and white audience on his campus.
The youth group students also visited Dudley High School, where Vance Chavis, a science instructor, had his students address voter registration letters in his homeroom, and told his students that he had never ridden in the back of a Jim Crow bus or accepted a “buzzard’s roost” seat in the downtown movie theater. Many went to a church whose pastor immediately offered the sit-in students use of his mimeograph machine when the protests began.
The sit-in protesters had clearly found a new language with which to express their belief in racial justice. But they were carrying forward a lesson — and a legacy — that they had learned from role models who taught them the meaning of dignity and self-affirmation.
A second misconception is to think of the sit-ins as a peculiarly American phenomenon — another example, if you will, of American “exceptionalism.”
The values expressed by the sit-in demonstrators were universal. They came from Gandhi and from Jesus, from Locke and from Rousseau. They had already fostered anti-colonial revolutions in India, Africa, Indochina and in the streets of Budapest in 1956.
Nowhere were the parallels stronger than with the apartheid regime of South Africa. There, too, people like Chief Albert Lithuli and lawyer Nelson Mandela stood up to protest, putting their lives on the line.
To honor that struggle, Robert F. Kennedy went to the University of Cape Town in 1966 to deliver a message of hope. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others,” Kennedy told the students, “he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Fifty years ago in Greensboro, as in South Africa, protesters shaped history by using the foundations of resistance that they had inherited.
Today, citizens of Tehran, Harare and elsewhere carry forward that tradition, hoping “their diverse acts of courage” can also change history.
William H. Chafe teaches history at Duke University and is the author of “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.”