On February 1, 1960, four Black college freshmen, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond, sat down at a "whites-only" Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and politely asked for service. The white waiter refused and suggested they order a take-out meal from the "stand-up" counter. But the students did not budge. The store manager then approached the men, asking them to leave. But they did not move. They also did not give up their seats when a police officer arrived and menacingly slapped his nightstick against his hand directly behind them.
While lunch counter sit-ins had taken place before, the four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University drew national attention to the cause. By simply remaining in their seats peacefully and quietly, they flummoxed the staff and left them unsure on how to enforce their “whites-only” rule. Eventually the manager closed the store early and the men left—with the rest of the customers.
It was a small victory—and one that would build. 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, a student movement was galvanized.
“The sit-ins establish a crucial kind of leadership and organizing of young people,” says Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor. “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.”
The Greensboro sit-in wasn’t a random act of rebellion, but the result of months of planning. The students had received guidance from mentor activists and collaborated with students from Greensboro's all-women's Bennett College. They also took inspiration from civil rights causes of years earlier, including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.
One member of the Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, resolved to integrate lunch counters after a 1959 trip to New York, a city where he hadn’t encountered Jim Crow laws. Upon his return to North Carolina, the Greensboro Trailways Bus Terminal Cafe denied him service at its lunch counter, making him determined to fight segregation. McNeil worked in the university library with a fellow activist, Eula Hudgens, who encouraged him to protest. Hudgens had participated in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation against racial segregation on interstate buses. This was a forerunner to the 1961 Freedom Rides, just as the 1942 sit-in at the Jack Spratt Coffee House in Chicago was a forerunner to the Greensboro sit-in of 1960.
“There were also sit-ins in Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri,” says John L. Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. “They were taking place in a lot of places before Greensboro.”