Monday, February 1, 2010

Never Request Permission to Start a Revolution: 50 Years Since Greensboro

A core principle of organizing that is often repeated here at FMF is that you only need five people to start a movement. 50 years ago today, four young men in Greensboro, NC proved that you don't even need that many.

On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T, a historically black college in Greensboro, sat at a whites-only Woolworth's lunch counter. They were refused service but stayed seated, nervous but resolute. The four young men stayed until the store closed that day and returned to campus, where they recruited more students to join their protest. The next day, twenty five students sat at Woolworth's. By February 4th, 300 students were gathering, and a group returned everyday for weeks after.

The protests were considered radical. Franklin McCain, one of the four original student protesters, recalled to CNN, "We had talked to several students about this fractured and unequal democracy and what we wanted to do about it and, quite honestly, most people thought we were crazy." But their goal was just, and those doubts could not stand in their way. As he says, "Never request permission to start a revolution."

As news of the sit-ins got out, they spread to other states, with protesters sitting at lunch counters across the South. The protesters were peaceful, even in the face of jeering crowds hurling insults, food, or worse. Store managers attempted to close their stores for the day, only to have the protesters return again and again.

Joseph McNeill, one of the Greensboro Four, remembers, "For the most part, we were too angry to be too fearful. The heckling and all those things were a concern, but I think it made us stronger for the process. The fact that you could get people to go back into harm's way day after day and take physical abuse and verbal abuse is a testament to the fact that we were responding on solid principles and morals."

The sit-in movement injected fresh energy into the civil rights movement, and led directly to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in May 1960. SNCC's direct action approach when it came to integration and voter registration would define the movement in the early 60s.

As Ella Baker, a veteran civil rights organizer and adviser to SNCC, wrote in her landmark essay Bigger than a Hamburger, "Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination — not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life. ... By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the 'whole world' and the 'Human Race.'"

Today, we honor the legacy of Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, and remember that even the smallest acts--sitting at a lunch counter, refusing to move to the back of the bus, registering to vote, challenging and questioning the status quo--can be revolutionary.

This article was featured in our February 2010 monthly Choices eZine. Sign up for our alerts to stay up-to-date with the latest feminist news and to receive the monthly eZine.

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