Why I Pay Tribute to the 4 Men of the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-In

This article contains a few reflections of my visit to the Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and my deep admiration for 4 young men who, through their nonviolence and heartfelt action at the Woolworth lunch counter, changed a community and a Nation.

It was 60 years ago today that, February 1, 1960, in the small town of Greensboro, North Carolina with its quaint downtown strip of buildings, stores and shops, something profound happened. 

On a typical winter’s day in the Southeast, people from all walks of life would be out to shop, stroll, have a meal and to live their lives. But some had to live their lives separately.

Back then, about 25% of the people that lived in and around Greensboro were African-American. Like many areas of the South, North Carolina towns had local policies of racial segregation.   And these laws, or “customs” as some called them, were insidious.  Black folks could enter stores such as Woolworth Drug Store and spend their money on products.  They could ride on buses and even visit some public buildings. However, as we all know now, they were limited on what days they could visit, where they could sit and what water fountains and bathrooms they could use.  In essence their money was welcome, but they themselves were not.

Lunch Counter Greensboro Woolworths

Volumes have been written about these injustices. And these texts and stories, many of which were written or told by people directly affected by these terrible practices, provide brutally honest accounts of the ugly truth of segregation that I have never known, and are more informed and insightful about the topic than I could ever be.

But the story I want to tell here is not about the insanity of racism, or the broader civil rights movement or even about American history.  This piece is simply a brief and humble tribute to four young men. 

I recently visited the historic site of the famed Woolworth Lunch Counter Sit-In Protest in Greensboro, North Carolina that occurred 60 years ago. Standing at the site of such a pitched-point in our Country’s history brings forth many humbling emotions and points of reflection. And I, like most, felt many of them. But there was one revelation I did not expect, and that came from me learning more about the 4 young men that started this event.

In the days before the historic sit-in at that lunch counter in Woolworths, four young men, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (who changed his name to Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond gathered at their campus and talked about their desire to do something to help forward social change.

They talked of many things, but after being inspired by the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King and his non-violence strategies to bring light to the pressing civil rights issues of the day, they decided on their plan to address the injustice of segregation.  Their plan was inspired by the experience of Joseph McNeil who just a few weeks before the famed sit-in attempted to enter the local Greensboro Greyhound bus station, but was refused.  

Greensboro Four

The Greensboro Four

Here is where I will depart from many who write about the historic events that unfolded as a result of their actions. Many people hail these young men as the “Greensboro Four.”   This type of branding moniker has often been used as an abbreviation, a short-hand of sorts, that lumps a group of people together with a uniform label.  These groupings of people are done so conversations can move quickly towards the topic many people wish to discuss.  In this case, that topic is the injustice the Greensboro Four sought to change and the activism and social movements they inspired.  Those topics are highly important. And these labels have value too, but the labels often allow folks to skip over the humanity of the individuals involved. And it is that humanity, and who these 4 young men were as individuals, that prompted me to write this article.

What occurred that fateful day at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not propagated by a uniform organization, established political or community leaders or a coordinated grassroots movement. It was born of the principles, the passion and the hearts of four very young people who wanted to make a difference.   

They were only freshman in college, not even 20 years old.  They were still teenagers, not old enough in the eyes of many to be called adults.  Think about that. Just a few years before their historic effort, they were simply children.  They were kids.   

Their sit-in at that North Carolina lunch counter made a profound impact.  And it was different than efforts of the past.   Many of us not versed in the deeper history of the human rights struggle may not know that in the years before the Greensboro sit-in, there were other similar protests that attempted to highlight this injustice.   

An African-American attorney in 1939 organized a sit-in of a segregated library in Virginia.  There were also sit-ins sponsored by activist groups in 1942, 1949 and 1952. And, in 1958, a 20-year old who was the president of the local NAACP Youth Council helped to lead a sit-in of a drugstore lunch counter in Wichita Kansas that led to the Dockum Drug Store ending its segregation policy.   

But the difference with each of these previous historic events and the event in Greensboro is that the earlier efforts were either initiated or influenced by some sort of establish leaders or organizations.  Even the young man in Wichita mentioned above partnered with a local attorney who suggested the sit-in action to the young man.  But here in Greensboro, things were different.   Four kids talking together at the college one day decided to go out and make a difference. And what a difference they made.

Their plan was simple.  They would sit at the “whites only” section of the counter, they would inevitably be refused service, and they would remain sitting there all day, every day if necessary, to make their point. The young men were hoping they would gain the attention of the press.  Much to their credit, the local newspaper covered the sit-in immediately, and wrote almost daily articles on the subject.  

Between the local press coverage and word-of-mouth networking amongst the young African American college community, the protest grew.  Starting with just the four of them, they were soon joined by other African-American young adults.  Coming from other colleges, and even a high school near-by, others joined the original four at the counter over the following days.

Greensboro Woolworths Sit it Protest

The confluence of the times were definitely a contributing factor to why this sit-in, of all the sit-ins that came before it, gained attention.  Dr. King’s message was gaining momentum.  There was an emerging and more aggressive national press hungry for stories. And with new technologies that could speed images and news into the homes of people across the country, a spark was created.  And that spark propelled this particular sit-in protest and the mission of these four humble young college freshman into the conversation of a Nation.

I am deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.

Dwight Eisenhower – President of the United States

It was so impactful that just six weeks after the protest began, the respected President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower publicly stated he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”  

It is an unfortunate byproduct of human nature that some people try to apply the sensibilities of the current time upon the people and the events of the past, and using this misguided view they render judgments on those people and things.  When they do this, they diminish the incredible struggles, the individual sacrifices, and the difficult incremental changes and triumphs that occurred in the context of those points in history.  

The naked truth of the ugliness of segregation was being laid bare before the American people.  And, to have a sitting President of the United States, especially of that era, make a public statement that supported four young black college kids that were enduring abuse for no other reason than they wanted to sit at a lunch counter and be treated as equals was a very profound change in the culture of that time.

All this started with 4 young men.  And, these four people were not all the same.  In fact, the diversity amongst them as individuals shows that people’s passions and intentions, and not their personalities and their lives’ paths, are the things that bring people together and make true change happen.   

Their different outlooks and dreams took them on very different journeys after their historic sit-in.

Greensboro Four

Franklin McCain began a successful 35-year long career at a chemical manufacturer.  He also gave back as a trustee on the boards for both North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central Universities. He died from a respiratory illness in 2014.

David Richmond had a more difficult life after the sit-in.  He remained in Greensboro where is family was located but hostility from resentful pro-segregationists towards him continued.  He moved out of the area for a decade but eventually returned to Greensboro to care for his aging parents. With the other three of the Greensboro Four gone, Richmond was left to live in an unwelcoming town.  Struggling to find work, he eventually landed employment as a housekeeper at a local Health Care Center.  He died of lung cancer in 1990.

Ezell Alexander Blair, Jr. / Jibreel Khazan left Greensboro after experiencing similar negativity from some in the community in the days after the sit-in.  He moved to Massachusetts where he worked as a teacher and later joined the Islamic Center of New England, eventually becoming an oral historian and lecturer.

Joseph McNeil went on to become a Major General in the United States Air Force who after retirement worked in corporate finance and then the Federal Aviation Administration.  A fact few know is that McNeil met and fell in love with Ina Brown, a Lakota descendant and the great-great granddaughter of Chief Sitting Bull.  

They may be the Greensboro Four, but much more importantly, they were four unique individuals.  Four young men.  Four kids.  And they as individuals came together to add their voices to a revolution for the better. 

Today I celebrate those four people and deeply hope that their story as individuals will inspire countless thousands of people in the future, from all walks of life, to also take actions large and small to help make this world a better place.   

Thank you Franklin, Jibreel, Ezell and Joseph.  You are all an inspiration, and you have inspired me.

International Civil Rights Center

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