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PETER FROST visits a five and dime store in Greensboro, North Carolina, that played a key role in the battle for civil rights

You will find the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. It is in a building that was once a Woolworths five and dime store.

It was in that branch of Woolworths that history was made when February 1 1960, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a segregated college for black students only, sat down at the Woolworths whites-only lunch counter.

The four heroes were Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond. Their brave action hit the world headlines and gave impetus to the growing Civil Rights Movement that is still changing the US today.

The four black students were refused service and abused by white staff and customers, but they stood their ground offering no violence. Woolworths store manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave.

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The next day, more than 20 black students came to the store to join the sit-in. Students from Bennett College, a college for black women in Greensboro, joined the protest.

White customers heckled the black students. The Woolworths staff continued to refuse service. Newspaper reporters and a TV crew covered the second day of the peaceful demonstration. The story raced across the US and then the world.

On the third day, more than 60 people came to the Woolworths store to join the protest. A statement issued by Woolworths national headquarters said the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregated policy.

More than 300 people took part on the fourth day. The sit-in protesters also sat in at another segregated lunch counter at another Greensboro store.

Just a week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own similar actions. The protests spread to towns near Greensboro, including  Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte.

Soon the actions crossed into other Southern states. This was a movement that could not be stopped. It spread to cities including Richmond, Virginia, Lexington, Kentucky and Jackson Mississippi.

In Nashville students had been trained for a sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson. They enthusiastically joined what had become an unstoppable tide.

Even as the sit-ins spread across the Southern states Greensboro students upped the ante. They began a total boycott of stores that still had segregated lunch counters.

Sales at these stores dropped by a third, leading the owners to question their segregation policies.

On Monday July 25 1960, after nearly $200,000 in losses due to the sit-ins and boycott, Woolworths Greenboro store manager Clarence Harris served its first lunches to black diners.

The growing support for the campaign even forced then president Eisenhower to express his concern. He made a statement saying that he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Desegregation started to spread across the Southern states. Soon it was not just lunch counters but also public toilets, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and museums all across the South.

A parallel campaign inspired by Rosa Parks’s heroic action in sitting in a whites-only bus seat five years earlier had grown into vast political pressure demanding that public buses be desegregated.

Finally these many campaigns led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Today it isn’t hard to find examples of racism and even segregation in the US. The fight for equality and against racism goes on every day.

However one thing is certain, whenever and wherever that battle takes place people, black and white, are inspired by the four heroes who sat down at that Woolworth lunch counter in Greenboro 55 years ago this week.

And although the Greenboro Woolworths sit-in is often seen as the start of a great movement, in fact these protests were part of a long and proud history of actions against racial segregation in the South.

The first ever sit-in, organised by black attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker at the segregated Alexandria, Virginia library, took place in August 1939.

Three years later, 1942 saw sit-ins by the Congress of Racial Equality in Chicago. Other individual sit-ins happened in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. Wichita, Kansas, was the location of a successful sit-in in 1958.

First published Morning Star 3 February 2014

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