The 1960 Greensboro Sit-In at Woolworth's Lunch Counter

Four college students made history

A section of the original F.W. Woolworth lunch counter
A section of the original F.W. Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, where in 1960 four African-American college students launched the sit-in movement, appears as part of a new exhibit called, "Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement," at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on August 2, 2013.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

The Greensboro sit-in was a February 1, 1960, protest by four black college students at the lunch counter of a North Carolina Woolworth's store. Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, who attended the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, intentionally sat at a whites-only lunch counter and requested to be served to challenge racially segregated dining. Such sit-ins had taken place as early as the 1940s, but the Greensboro sit-in received a wave of national attention that sparked a large scale movement against Jim Crow’s presence in private businesses.

During this period of US history, it was commonplace for black and white Americans to have separate dining accommodations. Four years before the Greensboro sit-in, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, had successfully challenged racial segregation on city buses. And in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites violated the constitutional rights of African American students. As a result of these historic civil rights victories, many black people were hopeful that they could knock down barriers to equality in other sectors as well. 

Fast Facts: The Greensboro Sit-In of 1960

  • Four North Carolina students—Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—organized the Greensboro Sit-In in February 1960 to protest racial segregation at lunch counters.
  • The actions of the Greensboro Four quickly inspired other students to act. Young people in other North Carolina cities, and eventually in other states, protested racial segregation at lunch counters as a result.
  • In April 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed in Raleigh, North Carolina, to allow students to easily mobilize around other issues. SNCC played key roles in the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and other civil rights efforts. 
  • The Smithsonian has part of the original lunch counter from the Greensboro Woolworth’s on display.

The Impetus for the Greensboro Sit-In

Just as Rosa Parks prepared for the moment that she could challenge racial segregation on a Montgomery bus, the Greensboro Four planned for the opportunity to challenge Jim Crow at a lunch counter. One of the four students, Joseph McNeil, felt personally moved to take a stand against whites-only policies at diners. In December 1959, he’d returned to Greensboro from a trip to New York and was angered when turned away from the Greensboro Trailways Bus Terminal Cafe. In New York, he had not faced the overt racism he’d encountered in North Carolina, and he wasn’t eager to accept such treatment once more. McNeil was also motivated to act because he’d befriended an activist named Eula Hudgens, who’d participated in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation to protest racial segregation on interstate buses, a precursor to the 1961 Freedom Rides. He’d spoken with Hudgens about her experiences taking part in civil disobedience. 

McNeil and the other members of the Greensboro Four had also read about social justice issues, taking in books by freedom fighters, scholars, and poets such as Frederick Douglass, Touissant L’Ouverture, Gandhi, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes. The foursome also discussed taking nonviolent forms of political action with one another. They befriended a white entrepreneur and activist named Ralph Johns, who’d contributed to their university and to civil rights group the NAACP, as well. Their knowledge of civil disobedience and friendships with activists led the students to take action themselves. They began to plan a nonviolent protest of their own.

The First Sit-In at Woolworth's

The Greensboro Four carefully organized their sit-in at Woolworth's, a department store with a lunch counter. Before heading to the store, they had Ralph Johns contact the press to make sure their protest received media attention. After arriving at Woolworth's, they bought various items and held on to their receipts, so there would be no doubt they were store patrons. When they finished shopping, they sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. Predictably, the students were denied service and ordered to leave. Afterward, they told other students about the incident, inspiring their peers to get involved. 

African Americans at Woolworth Store's lunch counter
February, 1960. African Americans stage sit down at Woolworth Store's lunch counter, in which service was refused to them. Donald Uhrbrock / Getty Images

The following morning, 29 North Carolina Agricultural and Technical students went to Woolworth’s lunch counter and asked to be waited on. The day after that, students from another college took part, and before long, young people began holding sit-ins at lunch counters elsewhere. Throngs of activists were heading to lunch counters and demanding service. This prompted groups of white men to show up at the lunch counters and assault, insult, or otherwise disturb the protesters. Sometimes, the men threw eggs at the youth, and one student’s coat was even set alight while demonstrating at a lunch counter.

For six days, the lunch counter protests went on, and by Saturday (the Greensboro Four began their demonstration on a Monday), an estimated 1,400 students showed up to the Greensboro Woolworth's to demonstrate inside and outside the store. The sit-ins spread to other North Carolina cities, including Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Durham. At a Raleigh Woolworth's, 41 students were arrested for trespassing, but most students who took part in the lunch counter sit-ins were not arrested for protesting racial segregation. The movement eventually spread to cities in 13 states where youth challenged segregation at hotels, libraries, and beaches in addition to lunch counters.

CORE Demonstrators Outside Harlem Woolworth Store
Demonstrators holding signs protest in front of an F.W. Woolworth store in Harlem to oppose lunch counter discrimination practiced in Woolworth stores in Greensboro, Charlotte, and Durham, North Carolina. Bettmann / Getty Images

Impact and Legacy of the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

The sit-ins quickly led to integrated dining accommodations. Over the next few months, blacks and whites were sharing lunch counters in Greensboro and other cities in the South and North alike. It took longer for other lunch counters to integrate, with some stores closing them down to avoid doing so. Still, the mass student action put the national spotlight on segregated dining facilities. The sit-ins also stand out because they were a grassroots movement organized by a group of students unaffiliated with any particular civil rights organization. 

Some of the young people who took part in the lunch-counter movement formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960. SNCC would go on to play roles in the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Greensboro Woolworth's now serves as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. has part of Woolworth’s lunch counter on display.

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