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You Say You Want a Revolution

The Greensboro Four at the Woolworth counter
The Greensboro Four at the Woolworth counter
Ever thought about changing the world? Starting a revolution that alters the course of history forever? Well, I have. I watched documentaries when I was in high school about Margaret Sanger, Gandhi, and Mao Tse Tung; and dream of the day I could lead a revolution that would lead to the betterment of all humanity. But ha! I was just a lowly teenager with no connections, no knowledge, no skills. I thought I had to be really old and mature before I could even think about making some kind of difference. Well boys and girls, as I learned this week, it turns out you're never too young to start a revolution.


The best road food/After a long day

Picture yourself a freshman in college in 1960. Within the past few years, you've read about a 14-year old boy named Emmitt Till being lynched by a white mob. You've heard of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. You've seen the barbaric treatment of the black teenagers that integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the time you enter college, you are one ticked off and frustrated person. The local restaurants won't serve you, you drink at segregated fountains, you use separate restrooms and the buses still want you to sit in the back. You can't swim in the local pool. It's so overwhelmingly unfair that you're tempted to sit in despair over the hopelessness of ever overthrowing such a racist system. But that wasn't the reaction of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College freshmen Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain and David Richmond down in Greensboro, North Carolina. Richmond remembered, "At home, we constantly heard about all of the evils that were occurring and how black folks are mistreated and nobody was doing anything about it. We talked about it quite a bit."

But these four guys weren't satisfied with just talking. They decided to plot their own course of action. McNeil said, "I was particularly inspired by the people in Little Rock. I was really impressed with the courage that those kids had and the leadership they displayed. Many of us wanted to make a contribution to be a part of something like that." They decided on January 31, 1960 that they would attempt to integrate the Woolworth lunch counter the next day. Woolworth was specifically picked because it was a national chain that could draw more attention. The guys spent the night sick with worry and anxiety. McCain said, "I was fully prepared mentally not to ever come back to the campus. I thought the worst thing that could happen to us is we could have had our heads split open with a night stick and been hauled into prison."

At 4:45 PM on February 1, 1960, the four guys sat down at the lunch counter in Woolworth after having bought some toothpaste so they could claim they were legitimate "customers." The waitress told them, "I'm sorry, but we don't serve colored here." The "Greensboro Four" as they became known, were not only protesting on behalf of black customers, but for the workers behind the counter who were also segregated by job. Waitresses were always white while the cooks and janitors were always black. The Four refused to move and spent the rest of the time reading until closing time.

On the way back to their dorms, the Four felt triumphant. "I've never felt so good in my life," McNeil said. "I truly felt as though I had my going-to-the-mountaintop experience." That night, they held meetings to try and rouse up support for more demonstrations. Most of the students were stunned by the Four's actions. Previously, all attempts at integration had been on public property such as schools and buses. But the Greensboro Four had directly challenged a privately-owned business chain. And though the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had conducted protests at hotels and restaurants going back to 1942, the Greensboro sit-in marked the powerful beginning of student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Young people for the first time took control of their own destinies.

On February 2, groups from not only the Agricultural and Technical College but other local colleges joined in the sit-ins, which spread to the department store Kress. Hundreds of students picketed outside, refused to budge inside and threatened an economic boycott. Elaborate transportation schedules were devised to rotate the students. Female students played an invaluable role. McCain said, "The females, I feel rather badly because attention was never really given to the role that they played, yet they were the spirit of this Movement. There were white females who participated in that Movement. WC students, [Woman's College of the University of North Carolina] I've never heard anything from them. Black women at Bennett, A & T and other places who participated…have never really been given the credit they deserved."

Police beatings and arrests of students aroused the conscience of the public
Police beatings and arrests of students aroused the conscience of the public
The protest continued for another five months before Kress and Woolworth, seeing their profits affected, agreed to integrate their stores. But the Greensboro Four's actions on February 1 had electrified college students all across the country. Within months, 70,000 would take part in rallies, marches, sit-ins, picketing and boycotts. 3600 would be arrested. With no jobs or families to worry about, and an impatient idealism, students had no notion of what was impossible. Protests at drug stores, libraries, restaurants took place in Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere. Some even staged a one-man protest. One white Duke student named Edward Ortemer decided to have his own sit-in in the black section of a bus station grill.

Blacks and whites both made up of SNCC, an issue that would prove to be controversial over time
Blacks and whites both made up of SNCC, an issue that would prove to be controversial over time
Ella Baker, a member of Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), saw in the students tremendous potential. Dissatisfied with SCLC's emphasis on strong leadership instead of grassroots participation, "Miss Baker," as she was known to students, began plotting ways to mobilize the students. On April 15, 1960, she convened a Southwide Youth Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Integration at Shaw University in North Carolina to organize the students into a cohesive army for justice. The name given to the group formed was SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though membership was less than 200 on its founding, it would grow into one of the most dynamic and influential movements during the 60s. Dr. King wholeheartedly endorsed the group and thought that they would become the student arm of the SCLC. Students, however, had a different idea and vowed to retain their independence. Tension would arise whenever Dr. King would swoop into a SNCC event and receive all the credit for events planned and executed by SNCC. SNCC did issue a declaration adhering to Dr. King's principles of non-violence.

SNCC proved revolutionary in another way. Before the feminist movement was fully underway, SNCC sought to be gender-inclusive. Many of its leaders were women and they even put out a women's position paper that documented all the subtle ways SNCC discriminated against women, despite good intentions. It's an extraordinary paper to read for both its time and its willingness to say that sexism is just as bad as racism. Part of the paper reads, "Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep rooted and every much as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro. Consider why it is in SNCC that women who are competent, qualified, and experienced, are automatically assigned to the 'female' kinds of jobs such as typing, desk work, telephone work, filing, library work, cooking, and the assistant kind of administrative work but rarely the 'executive' kind."

John Lewis, now a Congressman, was beaten over 30 times during his involvement with SNCC
John Lewis, now a Congressman, was beaten over 30 times during his involvement with SNCC
The following year after SNCC's founding, the Freedom Rides began and voter registration drives were put into place in Mississippi. SNCC would face relentless beatings, arrests, bombings, and even murder. It never hesitated to challenge the status quo. SNCC chairman John Lewis' speech on the March on Washington was considered controversial for accusing the government of indifference at a time when many civil rights leaders were trying to cozy up to the Kennedy administration. Only a young person I think, would have had the courage to say what he did that day. "We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We can not depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence."

Irene can get served in this restaurant and sit with white, yellow, brown, black people of her own choosing because of the Greensboro sit-in!
Irene can get served in this restaurant and sit with white, yellow, brown, black people of her own choosing because of the Greensboro sit-in!
Many of black America's most prominent leaders got their start in SNCC, starting with now-Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond, and former DC mayor Marion Berry. The organization itself, however, would find itself weary and beaten down as the 60s dragged on with more violence and riots. By 1966, the organization would move away from its non-violent principles and begin preaching "Black Power." One SNCC member said, "Those early sit-inners and SNCC people really believed that they were going to win. I don't think that anybody ever envisioned the long years of struggle and violence and anguish." Those years will be documented in an upcoming dispatch. But over forty years after the Greensboro sit-ins, its amazing to see how far we've come as a country. It's easy to take for granted that I can sit anywhere with people regardless of their skin color. But I have to remember I owe that freedom to some brave 18 year olds. Joseph McNeil recalled years later that, "The secret of life is knowing when to take on something difficult and to take on something that might have enormous risks and implications." Thanks to him and his three friends, I know that age or inexperience is no excuse for not starting a revolution.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - No, it's not a warzone. It's Selma, Alabama Stephanie - Get on the bus, it's time for equality
Neda - The dream that inspired a nation
Stephanie - Riders on the wave of justice and equality
Jennifer - Crushing the lie of "separate but equal"