Nothing to do with rock & roll. Nothing to do with JFK.
It has to do with what happened in Greensboro, NC, the day before, February 1, 1960. Four young men–Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain–went to the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s department store near the school where they were underclassmen, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
The four sat down and awaited service. They ignored Woolworth’s policy of serving food only to African-Americans who remained standing or took it elsewhere. They defied North Carolina law and the Jim Crow culture which pervaded, indeed defined, the South of the United States. The four sat, unserved, from 4:30 in the afternoon until management closed the store, early, at 5:00.
You can find much written that dates the decade of upsurge, promise and change we call the Sixties from that day.
I’ll argue for the next day, February 2, 1960, 50 years ago yesterday.
That’s the day that really counts, because that morning David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, Ezell A. Blair Jr., and Franklin McCain went back to the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth’s and sat down again. So did 21 other young men and four young women from traditionally Black schools in the area.
The next day, February 3, 63 of the 65 seats at the Woolworth’s counter were occupied and on February 4 a sit-in began at S.H. Kress, another department store, and the protesters had been joined by three white students from Woman’s College. At the same time racist whites in increasing numbers gathered to heckle and harass the disciplined and determined protesters.
On February 7, Black students in Winston-Salem and Durham, NC held sit-ins at lunch counters. On February 8, Charlotte, NC. On February 9, Raleigh, NC.
It took five long months before the Greensboro establishment caved in and ended segregation in dining facilities. Once the original burst of enthusiasm and defiance passed, it was a long hard slog for the ones who started it and the small core that had formed in the struggle. McCain recalls:
McNeil and I can’t count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn’t get people to help us staff a picket line.
But even as they undertook the long painful battle to bring the victory home, their example had spread the tactic of sit-ins to hundreds of localities, including solidarity protests at chain stores in the North and West. Even more important, their action in sitting down at that counter, and returning the next day had spread the determination to smash Jim Crow and fight for justice to the hearts of millions.
And the Sixties, our Sixties, were underway.
A version of this was posted here last year, and it is crossposted from Fire on the Mountain.