By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010
For 50 years now, the faces of the students have been etched in our
memories, four young men at a lunch counter, nattily dressed,
clean-shaven, looking over their shoulders, serious about their
actions, perhaps a little uncertain about its results.
Sitting at the whites-only counter in a North Carolina Woolworth's,
they asked for cups of coffee and were refused service. The
Greensboro Four didn't leave, instead stepping into history on Feb. 1, 1960.
On Wednesday night on a plain stage at the National Museum of
American History, a floor below where an eight-foot-long portion of
that same lunch counter is on exhibit, stood living history. Now only
three remain, Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin E.
McCain and Joseph A. McNeil; together they heard, over and over
again, but respectfully, how they had sat down so others could stand up.
"We started sitting down," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), in a
thunderous tone, describing the flood of sit-ins after the Greensboro
movement. He was a student in the South when the protest by the four
North Carolina A&T College students became national news, and he felt
the backlash. "They spit on us, put out cigarettes in our hair. If it
hadn't been for you, I don't know where we would be tonight," he said.
The three men, as well as David L. Richmond, who died in December
1990, were given the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, one of the
highest awards of the Smithsonian, during this anniversary week of
the start of their protest.
McNeil said he had reflected during the ceremony on several
principles he had learned during the sit-ins. "The first one was the
power of nonviolence and how it could be used to bring about change,"
said McNeil, a retired major general from the Air Force Reserve, who
has worked in the financial industry and aviation administration. He
lives in Hempstead, N.Y.
"And then the importance of service before self. I think of all those
people -- they didn't ask, 'What is in it for me?' "
After the ceremony, McCain, whose home is in Charlotte, sat by the
old counter, posing for pictures and signing slips of paper. "The
whole concept of honoring the 50th anniversary is humbling. It causes
some introspection. People have made some conclusions, and I have to
ask, 'Did I measure up?' " said McCain, a chemist who is now chairman
of the North Carolina A&T State University board of trustees.
Within weeks of the lunch-counter actions, a movement was galvanized,
and sit-ins began occurring at segregated facilities in more than 70
cities. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded in
April 1960, bringing to the forefront Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hamer,
Ella Baker, Marion Barry, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Stokely
Carmichael. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch
counter was desegregated. As historians and filmmakers have often
said, applauding the bravery of the four freshman from North Carolina
A&T, "It wasn't on the menu, but justice was served."
Providing a roll call of the heroes of the era, including Martin
Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and Rosa
Parks, Khazan said they had all left behind footprints. He urged
continued activism, saying, "Bring our children to this altar of
love." Khazan lives in New Bedford, Mass., and has spent his life
helping the developmentally disabled.
The Woolworth's store closed in 1993. The counter acquired a mystique
in the annals of civil rights history, and the students became heroes
of the struggle. The National Museum of American History, led by
Lonnie G. Bunch (then chief curator at the museum) and curator
William Yeingst, fought hard to get part of the counter. They
negotiated with Woolworth's and with Greensboro's white power
structure, as well as with representatives of the black community who
wanted to preserve their history.
The Smithsonian prevailed, and in 1994, Yeingst drove a truck with
the new acquisition through a snowstorm back to the museum. First
displayed near the Star Spangled Banner to show how America has
evolved through protest and sacrifice, said Bunch (now the founding
director of the National Museum of African American History and
Culture), the counter now has its own unique location.
And Monday marked the reopening of the 1929 Woolworth's store in
Greensboro -- as the location of the new International Civil Rights
Center & Museum.