The Greensboro lunch counter sit-in is a seminal points in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement- on par with the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham campaign, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One the four college students who dared to walk into a whites-only lunch counter on February 1st, 1960 has died- Franklin McCain.
Reflecting decades after the event, he remarked “If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky…I would come back to my campus … in a pine box.” However the campaign was stunningly successful, kicking off a huge wave of sit-ins all over the South. Five months after they sat down at Woolworth’s, it served its first black customers.
This incident is now studied in sociology classes as an example of the power of social solidarity. Given all the violence against blacks for centuries in the South, to many people it would seem insane to try to stand up to white segregation. But when people have incredible trust in themselves and with each other, they can do extraordinary things.
History as it is taught, however, tends to view these people as spontaneously courageous. In fact, an important role of civil rights organizations like CORE and the SCLC was to train people to keep on point and on message (here is a trainer from the era running over the system taught). If dogs and firehoses had been unleashed on unprepared marchers in 1963, it would have been an ugly riot. The key was to expose the brutality of the opposition through disciplined nonviolence.
As the icons of the Civil Rights Movement pass on- those that were able to get through the 1960s alive- it is more and more important for newer generations to keep the spirit alive. Because the fight isn’t over, and its goals are still unmet.