31 January 2021
Bettmann / Getty Images
Bettmann / Getty Images

ON 1 FEBRUARY 1960, Ezell Blair Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, African-American students at the Agricultural and Technical State University of North Carolina, sat down at the whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro. “The white patrons eyed them warily, and the white waitresses ignored their studiously polite requests for service,” Time later reported. The manager called the police and closed the store. The “Greensboro Four” became the focus of national attention, inspiring similar sit-ins in 78 towns and cities over the next five months, including this one, organised on 2 April by the New York Youth Committee for Integration.

The Greensboro sit-in was not the first such action against segregation in the private sector. Since 1957, youth councils affiliated to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had organised similar sit-ins in over a dozen cities. The Greensboro Four had all been members of NAACP youth councils and participated in strategy meetings organised by the state students’ chapter at Bennett College, a historically black college for women, in late 1959. Bennett students volunteered to be spotters, observing the direct action from inside the store. A local white businessman, Ralph Johns, informed the local media about the sit-in. The presence of journalists, and the fact that the students had made a purchase in the store and not done anything provocative, contributed to the police refusing to remove the protesters.

The Greensboro Four returned the following day, accompanied by about twenty other black students, from both the A&T university and Bennett College. The sit-in continued throughout the week—around fourteen hundred people attended on 6 February. Similar sit-ins started elsewhere in North Carolina, and eventually took place in 13 states. In April, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed to better manage the decentralised protests. The lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth’s was finally integrated on 25 July.