February 3, 2009

The Other Lesson of the Greensboro Sit-Ins

This week marks 49 years since the Greensboro, NC, sit-ins, the historic protest which launched the Black Freedom Struggle in this country onto a new trajectory. Next year we will see a lot of celebration of the courage of the four students who first sat down at the Woolworth's lunch counter and of the chain reaction it set off. Or at least I sure hope we will.

I wrote such a tribute myself, yesterday. (You can read it pasted in directly below the fold.) In the course of refreshing my fading memory, via Google, to complete the task, I found another facet of the Greensboro story. It's one I had never come across, and one that will, I think, resonate with anyone who has spent much time in the activist trenches.

Many of us know the story of how four students on February 1 became dozens and by February 4, hundreds, as students across North Carolina and the South girded to emulate them and launch the wave of struggles that finally killed Jim Crow.

The other side of the story has to do with the five months it took to crack the management at Woolworth's and S.H. Kress and the rest of the Greensboro power structure.

The multiplication of protesters in that first week is now at the heart of the legend. But that level of activity was hard to sustain, especially as the students' demands remained unmet and white hostility grew more intense.

Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil remained part of the organizing core from Day One. McCain recalls:

What people won't talk (about), what people don't like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people. I can say this: when the television cameras stopped rolling and we didn't have eight or 10 reporters left, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line.
I don't know about you, but I can recall lulls in more than one campaign for justice when fatigue, frustration, setbacks and doubt had me in tears. When it happens again, and it will, I hope I remember to draw on this part of the lesson of Greensboro, not the audacity and the courage of the students, but the dogged persistence of the core they built.


[This is a piece I posted at the left-liberal DailyKos website, yesterday, February 2, after reading a post there entitled "The day the music died - 50 years ago tonight" about the plane crash at Clear Lake, Iowa that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.]

The Day The '60s, Our '60s, Began: 49 Years Ago Today


Nothing to do with rock and roll. Nothing to do with JFK.

It has to do with what happened in Greensboro, NC, the day before, February 1, 1960. Four young men, Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, went to the lunch counter at the Woolworth's department store near the school where they were underclassmen, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The four sat down and awaited service. They ignored Woolworth's policy of serving food only to African-Americans who remained standing or took it elsewhere. They defied North Carolina law and the Jim Crow culture which pervaded, indeed defined, the South of the United States. The four sat, unserved, from 4:30 in the afternoon until management closed the store, early, at 5:00.

You can find much written that dates the decade of upsurge, promise and change we call the Sixties from that day.

I'll argue for the next day, February 2, 1960, 49 years ago today.

That's the day that really counts, because that morning David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, Ezell A. Blair Jr., and Franklin McCain went back to the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth's and sat down. So did 21 other young men and four young women from traditionally Black schools in the area.

The next day, February 3, 63 of the 65 seats at the Woolworth's counter were occupied and on February 4 a sit-in began at S.H. Kress, another department store, and the protesters had been joined by three white students from Woman's College. At the same time racist whites in increasing numbers gathered to heckle and harass the disciplined and determined protesters.

On February 7, Black students in Winston-Salem and Durham, NC held sit-ins at lunch counters. On February 8, Charlotte, NC. On February 9, Raleigh, NC.

It took five long months before the Greensboro establishment caved in and ended segregation in dining facilities. Once the original burst of enthusiasm and defiance passed, it was a long hard slog for the ones who started it and the small core that had formed in the struggle. McCain recalls:
McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line.
But even as they undertook the long painful battle to bring the victory home, their example had spread the tactic of sit-ins to hundreds of localities, including solidarity protests at chain stores in the North and West. Even more important, their action in sitting down at that counter, and returning the next day had spread the determination to smash Jim Crow and fight for justice to the hearts of millions.

And the Sixties, our Sixties, were underway.

1 comment:

Big Noise said...

Jimmy,
It must be where I am in my history, 60, or just the talent of your storytelling skills; but remembering Greensboro made me cry, made me lonesome and a stronger, all at the same time.
Thanks
Cilla