Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond simply sat down at a lunch counter and ordered coffee. Hours later when the store closed, they were still there, but they had not been served.
And so it began, this day, February 1, 1960, in a Woolworth's in Greensboro NC. They were freshmen at North Carolina A &T.
They were refused service for a very simple reason - they were Black. The counter was "Whites only." The manager asked them to leave but they refused.
The next day there were more than twenty students.
They were harassed and heckled by white customers. They were not served. But this time there was news coverage, and the community began to learn what they were doing.
The third day there were more than 60. Woolworth's national headquarters announced they would continue to abide by the local custom - segregation, blacks not allowed to sit at the lunch counter.
The fourth day there were more than 300, and the demonstrations started to spread, at first to Kress's in Greensboro, and then within the week to other cities.
Sit-ins. Started by the simple action of four freshmen. Peaceful, non-violent, patient, asserting a basic right - to sit and have a cup of coffee.
On July 25, 1960, the black employees of that Woolworth's in Greensboro were served at the lunch counter. The following day Woolworth's changed the policy at all its stores. By then the spread of the movement and the positive coverage it received had had impacts elsewhere, beginning with the President of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike had perhaps been reluctant about integration even though he had acted forcefully by sending in the Airborne to Little Rock in the Fall of 1957. Now he was sympathetic, saying in March that he was
deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights...of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution
In May Nashville saw city-wide desegregation as a result of the actions of students there.
Some cities saw violence, but for the most part the sit-ins were peaceful. Desegregation began to spread to other public places - art galleries, beaches, transportation, etc. These were places of public accommodation. This helped prepare the ground for the 1964 Civil Rights Act which asserted that all places of public accommodation were in fact part of interstate commerce and therefore the Congress of the United States had legislated and the President signed into law a banning of discrimination in such places on the basis of race or national origin.
If you are on the Mall here in DC, and you enter the Museum of American History, one of the first things you will encounter is a portion of that lunch counter, donated to the Museum in 1993. It is appropriate that one experiences it there, for the action 51 years ago today is of major importance in our history.
Starting with the quiet courage and dignity of four college freshmen our nation began to finally address how we treated too many of our citizens with less than full respect. Four young men simply asserted that they had the right to sit down for a cup of coffee. What a remarkable assertion. By that simple action they moved our nation in a positive fashion, with minimal violence, to a place it should long ago have reached.
Sometimes it is important to remember what things were like.
Too often we forget those who have helped get us where we are.
These are not major names. Perhaps you have never before heard them.
Do yourself a favor. Today thank four then young men, teenagers.
Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond simply sat down at a lunch counter and ordered coffee.
It was a simple action.
It had a profound effect.
We all benefited from what they did.