1960 sit-in taught a lesson on stereotypes

April 26, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Greensboro, N.C.-- --Franklin McCain stood in a room at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center on the campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and told a group of reporters what he learned that winter day back in 1960.

For years, civil rights lore has held that America learned much from McCain and his three North Carolina A&T classmates. On Feb. 1, 1960, McCain -- joined by David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil -- took a seat at a segregated lunch counter in a Woolworth's in downtown Greensboro. They were refused service but sat peacefully until closing time. Their action had repercussions that swept the nation.

On Friday, some 46-plus years later, McCain had returned to his alma mater on the final day of a symposium sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies, which is on the A&T campus. The 11 journalists who took part in the symposium -- called "Beyond Rosa Parks: Civil Rights in the 21st Century" -- had heard all about McCain and his companions for three days.

Then, suddenly, there he was in the flesh. The journalists popped out of their seats and rushed to meet McCain. The result was an impromptu news conference in which McCain talked about what happened on that day in that Woolworth's in Greensboro.

Pick up any book about that era and the subject of civil rights, and you're likely to see a reference to what McCain, Richmond, Blair and McNeil did, and why it was and still is significant.

"In February 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, were refused service at a Woolworth's lunch counter, and their tactic of staying put until they were served triggered a wave of `sit-ins' and `pray-ins' around the country." That's from An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 by William Doyle.

This is from Timothy B. Tyson's Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power: "On February 1, 1960, [four] students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro walked into Woolworth's Department Store at about 4:30 in the afternoon, sat down at a segregated lunch counter, and asked to be served. Denied service, the young black men kept their seats until the counter closed.

"The next day, 23 classmates joined them at the counter. The day after that, there were 66; the day after, 100; and on the fifth day, 1,000 students marched through downtown Greensboro to demand equality.

"Within two months, the sit-ins had spread to 54 towns and cities across nine states of the old Confederacy. In April, Ella Baker convened a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh at which she helped give birth to SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)."

One of the early members of SNCC was Stokely Carmichael, who would later lead the organization in the mid-1960s before changing his name to Kwame Ture. In his autobiography, Ready For Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Carmichael acknowledged that he thought the initial sit-in was "fleeting and inconsequential."

But within weeks, Carmichael wrote, "over six thousand students from seventy-eight Southern campuses or communities had sat in. Over two thousand had gone to jail. The black student sit-in movement had swept through the South."

In the blink of a historical eye, the quartet known as the "Greensboro Four" taught the entire nation what power one seemingly insignificant, "fleeting and inconsequential" act could have. But, for McCain at least, the moment taught him something else as well.

He recalled that day when he and his companions took their seats in the restaurant. McCain said he noticed a white woman who looked so old to him he figured "she must have been about 200 years old." She stared at them as she drank her coffee.

After the woman finished her coffee she rose from her table and walked slowly toward them. Even 46 years later, McCain said, he remembers what was going through his mind: Was she going to call them "niggers"? Spit on them? McCain noticed that the woman carried a purse. Did she have a knife in it? Would she try to stab them?

McCain soon got his answer. The woman walked between two of the A&T freshmen and drooped her arms over their shoulders.

"Boys, I'm proud of you," she told them. "My only regret is you didn't do this 10 years ago."

McCain said the smart aleck in him wanted to answer that he would have been only 7 years old then. But the lesson he has carried with him ever since is what he told himself after the woman spoke.

"Franklin McCain, don't you ever stereotype anybody."

That 1960 lesson McCain learned is one many of us still need to learn in 2006.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.