Day One of the Civil Rights Tour took us to Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four African American college students dared to sit at Woolworth’s lunch counter and ask to be served like full citizens and customers instead of taking their orders to go. They were only about 18 years old and their simple act of civil disobedience caught Woolworth’s servers, managers, white patrons and the whole country (including the civil rights establishment) by surprise.
I have seen the black and white photos of these young men before. But I learned so much more about their story today. I learned that one of them had studied Mahatma Gandhi. One forewarned his parents he was about to do something that would shake up the world. All were concerned that if arrested, they’d be forced to serve in the U.S. Army instead of getting their college degree.
In the documentary “February One,” one of the teens who planted himself at Woolworth’s recounted how an “elderly white lady,” sat down next to him at the lunch counter. He expected to be called the n-word and have more angry abuse heaped upon him. Instead, she told him she was disappointed in the young men. When he asked, “Why, ma’am?” She said she was disappointed that it took so long for them to cross the color line.
Within days, the student sit-in movement spread to Kress Department store and eventually to more than 35 cities across the south. When the college semester ended for summer break, high school and middle school students took over the protests. Six months of economic pain later, Woolworth’s ended its policy of lunch counter apartheid.
As a journalist, I am proud that some of the news media played a positive role in this struggle. TV was taking off and news coverage of these demonstrations inspired and galvanized a new youth-led movement. They didn’t take their marching orders from the top and didn’t ask permission or for a blessing. They led.
The Woolworth’s lunch counter is now the main exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. DVD screens behind the counter enable visitors to feel like they are in the room, bearing witness to history.
The museum is filled with metaphor. It is a maze of small, confined spaces that force you to feel constricted just as black folks did while trying to navigate Jim Crow segregation. One room features the worst of the worst: photographs of lynchings, cross burnings, fire-hosing of protesters, bombed out Freedom Ride buses, the bloated disfigured face of murdered Emmett Till. These violent mages are mounted on what appears to be shards. Museum Director Bamidele Demerson explained the broken pieces represent a “dismembered country.” He said, “To heal, we must re-member the past and raise our voices whenever we see injustice.”
My 8th grader insisted she could handle the haunting images; but I didn’t let my 4th grader go in. She has always been very sensitive to suggestions of violence and danger and I have to be careful not to plant the seeds of nightmares. Still, I know that this kind of protection is a form of white privilege. That black parents didn’t and don’t have that luxury.
It hurts to see photos of lynchings and know that racists collected pictures of lynched people as souvenirs, like some of us collected baseball cards as a kid. It hurts to hear that activist Diane Nash told U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy that participants in the freedom rides – college kids – “had already written out their wills before getting on the bus.” It’s inspiring to see the wall of mug shots of activists arrested in the civil rights movement. Those who participated in the “jail, not bail” campaign were all races, male and female, young and old. The way it should be.
Beside the “Whites only” and “Colored entrance” signs, the museum features some gems, such as the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” the guide that helped black travellers find friendly accomodations. There’s also an original red Coca Cola vending machine that was placed between racially segregated waiting rooms in a bus terminal or train station. On the white side, a bottle of Coke costs 5 cents; on the black side, the price is 10 cents.
And, who knew that Charlton Heston (Moses, Ben Hur, NRA) attended the August 28, 1963 March on Washington. He said, “I could no longer pay lip service to a cause that was so urgently right in a time that was so urgently now.”
Of the original gang of four lunch counter sitters, only David Richmond stayed behind in Greensboro. Sadly, he was branded a radical, was threatened with violence, became a janitor at a nursing home and fell prey to alcoholism. Still, he had tremendous pride that what he and his friends started in dorm room #2128 of Scott Hall on the campus of A&T was a critical step in disrupting our country’s deep-seated racism. And, at the young age of 18, felt they had already done the most important thing in their lives.
That’s the main message I want my kids to get from this journey. That young people can be agents of change; indeed, they must. Their intolerance of the status quo often leads them to take risks that older folks and other grown-ups are unwilling to take, and as a result, our whole society benefits.
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring