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February 3, 2010

Standing up by sitting down

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On Monday February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked into the historic 1929 F. W. Woolworth Five-and-Dime building at 301 North Elm Street in Greensboro, N.C., and ordered lunch.


What they were served was an honored place in history that is celebrated to this day.


CNN, in one of the many media accounts of the events of 50 years ago, noted, “As the elderly white woman approached the four black students at the Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter, Franklin McCain braced for the worst.


“‘I was thinking to myself, she must have knitting needles and scissors in that handbag of hers and they're about to go right through me, ‘McCain recalled…


“Instead of pulling a knitting needle on the young men, the woman placed her hand on McCain's shoulder and smiled warmly.


“She says, ‘Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago,’’ McCain said…


“McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond were refused service February 1, 1960, but they sat their ground.”


According to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which was dedicated in the very same building just last Monday, “In the days after February 1, 1960, the sit-ins spread like wildfire throughout the South. Within three months, sit-ins were taking place in more than 55 cities in 13 states.”


Discovery News reports, “On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store…


“The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.”


I’m looking forward to visiting the museum. I have not been back since 1972… For more information on the museum, visit it on the web at


Fortunately, it is still there. Discovery News recounts, “The building remains because two men – county commissioner Skip Alston and city council member Earl Jones – arranged to buy it in 1993 for $700,000 from a bank that planned to turn the space into a parking lot.”


CNN reports, “The sit-ins … spread across the South, making the Greensboro Four an important catalyst in the nation's budding civil rights movement.”


Today, too many have unfortunately forgotten the lessons of the difficult days of the 1950s and 1960s when American had a caste system that perpetrated injustices upon certain people based on the color of their skin.


The lunch counter incident involving the “Greensboro Four,” as they came to be known, was way overdue.


It is also long overdue that we pay our proper respects to those brave souls from 50 years ago.


However, please understand that the purpose of studying history is not to take you back to those difficult days, but to bring history forward to today, so that we may benefit from battles fought long ago.


Mr. McCain made it relevant for today when he said in the CNN article, “Never request permission to start a revolution … 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.”


Maybe they were crazy like a fox. Nevertheless, they practiced non-violent civil disobedience and protest – a cherished American value. They stood-up by sitting down for what was right.


For many reasons, the events are important lessons for today as our nation grapples with hope and change. Hopefully many of the individuals who are simplistically dismissed today as crazy for standing-up will see their place in history changed because they did the right thing, at the right time, and for all the right reasons.


According to CNN, The New York Times reported in a February 14, 1960, article, “Negro Sitdowns Stir Fear Of Wider Unrest in South.”


The paper noted that “the protests were initially ignored, but that couldn't last.”


One of the most valuable lessons of the many important things to remember of the civil rights movement is that our great country has many challenges for which we need all hands on deck. To exclude anyone from helping-out is not really a smart approach.


I had often wondered what became of the “Greensboro Four” and fortunately, the CNN article filled-in the rest of the story:


“McNeil spent six years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, sold computers for IBM and worked as a commercial banker and stockbroker. He and his wife have five children.


“McCain became a chemist at the Celanese Corp. and went on to lead the company's office in Shelby, North Carolina. He and his wife have three sons.


“Blair attended law school at Howard University and became a member of the New England Islamic Center. He now goes by the name Jibreel Khazan and works with the developmentally disabled in Massachusetts. He and his wife have three children.


“Richmond worked as a counselor and coordinator for the Comprehensive Employment Training Act program in Greensboro. He also cared for his aging parents and worked as a porter at the Greensboro Health Care Center. He had two children.”


They may not be household names, but it is important to remember them for the fact that they stood up for their rights by sitting down.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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