Fifty years ago, my hometown of Greensboro was still known for its textiles and tobacco plants, its insurance companies and, city leaders liked to say, good human relations. The four young men from A&T College walked into the F.W. Woolworth store, sat down on red and green stools at the lunch counter and changed everything forever.
It was Feb. 1, 1960, and the neatly-dressed students were testing a simple concept. As customers, they wanted to order something to eat and sit there and consume it. It seems so strange now. But they were unsuccessful. Store policy, like that in much of the white South, prohibited black people from being able to sit down in most restaurants and order even a cup of coffee. They could shop and spend, but they couldn't sit and eat.
The sit-in at the five and dime, as it came to be known, wasn't the first such protest of racial barriers. But it was the one that caught the imagination of the country.
In time it came to be recognized as a pivotal event, touching off wave after wave of protest throughout the South. It "marked a decisive turning point in the long history of the African-American struggle for freedom," wrote historian August Meier in 1990. It eventually "transformed race relations and the status of black Americans in American society," he added.
It was not until the afternoon Greensboro Record broke the story on Tuesday, Feb. 2 that most folks began learning about David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair and their audacious intention to desegregate the lunch counter at Woolworth. Within hours, newspapers and broadcast stations across the country were carrying stories on the sit-in movement, fueling sit-ins across the South.
It was, the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled last week at a town hall style meeting on the campus of what is now N.C. A&T State University, the place where everything began to change.
"Something magical happened in Greensboro," said Jackson. "There was a movement leading up to that, and when the fire struck Greensboro, the wind blew and it captured the nation." Jackson spoke to an audience at the first of a four-day celebration of the opening Monday of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in the old Woolworth building at the corner of Elm and February One Place.
The sit-ins continued for nearly six months before Woolworth, tiring of the publicity, gave in and served anyone who sat at the counter. At the time of the sit-ins in Greensboro, Jackson had yet to enroll at A&T. By 1963 he would be leading regular demonstrations in downtown Greensboro to desegregate other public facilities in a city that had long prided itself on good human relations.
The city school board had decided to comply with instead of fight the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision soon after it was announced. That announcement was electrifying to many, but the practical effect was far less dramatic. There were few black students at white schools for years; real integration would wait another 15 years or so.
To many citizens of Greensboro, the good human relations that were often a point of civic pride for some weren't all that good. Rather than desegregate a local public golf course in 1955, the city closed the course while a court case dragged on.
As a Southern boy growing up in Greensboro in the 1950s and 60s, I had absorbed the racial views of my parents. They thought of themselves as liberals, having supported former UNC President Frank Porter Graham in the 1950 U.S. Senate race. My mother, a teacher, had long bemoaned the damage white supremacists had wrought in her native South Carolina. Racial epithets were forbidden in our home.
Yet their views reflected the times. Our cook, a devout black woman, could enter and exit only through the back door. A set of tableware was reserved for her use only. And at our dinner table there was consternation over the wishes of black people to be served alongside whites. What would be next?
These things were confusing to a 13-year-old boy trying to conflate the teachings of Jesus, the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal") with the Jim Crow practices of the Southern landscape. It was the way things were, and it made no sense.
Schools were clearly unequal. Downtown theaters relegated blacks to a balcony. Department stores had separate fountains that once were marked white or colored, signs that insulted human dignity. The A&T Four had the courage to physically launch a challenge to this unjust system - and reinvigorated the civil rights movement.
Greensboro has come a long way. Unlike Deep South cities like Selma and Birmingham, Greensboro's leaders in the 1960s avoided the worst excesses of racial strife. They acted in the city's best interests - its best economic interests, to be sure - to desegregate.
There is much yet to be done to erase lingering effects of the segregation era. One of them is making sure today's young people, of all races, understand what things were like on that February morning 50 years ago, how far things have come and how far they have to go. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum - its lunch counter stools still in place - will help tell the story.
Jack Betts is a Raleigh-based columnist and associate editor for The Charlotte Observer.