Fifty years ago this month, the Greensboro Four sat down for a coffee in Woolworths. This assembly explores the lessons their act of bravery teaches us

Introduction for teachers

Fifty years ago this month, when segregation was still legal and common in the south of the USA, and the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy, four black American students decided enough was enough and went to sit down for coffee at a whites-only lunch counter in their town in North Carolina. Their aim was to change local attitudes, but the movement they inspired changed America − contributing, eventually, to the election of President Obama − and made a global statement about humanity and justice that can not be repeated often enough. They are remembered today as the Greensboro Four; key players in what later became a Civil Rights movement.

The preserved Greensboro lunch counter.

[Refer to the photo of the lunch counter]

Can you tell what this is?

Yes, it’s a counter for serving snacks, or coffee and other drinks. This one is preserved in a museum. Why do you think a café counter would be kept in a museum? And why four chairs, and not one, or eight? Today we’re going to find out. But first, let me tell you about something called segregation.

Once, there was a time in America, and Britain and South Africa, and many other countries, where it was legal to put up notices in public places, like cafés, hotels and sports centres saying that black people were not allowed in. Even if there were no notices, there were places where everyone understood that only white people were allowed. It was quite normal to believe – and to say – that black people weren’t equal to white people, and that they should not be allowed to do the same things. In America, there were schools and universities for black students and separate ones for white students; and the white schools and universities were often much better than the ones for black students. This was all because of something called ‘segregation’ – the separation of people who were said to be different races.

We didn’t have separate schools in Britain, but we did have notices in hotels and boarding houses, and we did have many employers who wouldn’t let black people work for them.

You only have to look around our school and our neighbourhood now to know how much that has changed. It’s changed so much that it’s quite difficult to imagine how it must have been to live with segregation. Even now, there are times when people say ignorant or thoughtless things about the differences between people with different ethnic origins or skin colour, but now we know that racism is not acceptable − and that we are right to challenge it wherever we find it.

In a segregated country, it was much more difficult to challenge racism. Today’s story honours four men who stood up to racism in America, and set an example to the whole world.

Fifty years ago, on 1st February 1960, four young men in their late teens decided to meet up and visit their local café, which was called Woolworths. They were university students in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina, in the USA, and the café was near to their student accommodation. Their names were Ezell, David, Joseph, and Franklin.

Now, North Carolina was a very segregated state. The students were pretty sure that they wouldn’t even be allowed to sit at the lunch counter, let alone be allowed any coffee. But they decided to go anyway. All of them felt that they’d had enough of being treated like second class people – being refused entry in to places, not being served food, being made to stand when white people could sit down. These were unfair things that black people had had to deal with all their lives in their part of the world.

So off to Woolworths they went, on a visit they’d been planning for a whole month. They went to the lunch counter, and they sat down at four chairs – those swivel chairs fixed to the floor that you see in such places [refer to picture]. They were described as ‘whites only’ chairs, and it was public knowledge that black people were not allowed to sit in them.

The waitress would not serve them − but neither did she ask them to go. Instead she went to tell the manager what was happening.

The manager decided to leave the four sitting there, rather than cause a disturbance by trying to make them leave. He assumed that, since they weren’t being sold any food or drink, they’d eventually go and the whole thing would be forgotten the next day.

But the next day, the four returned, and this time there were 23 of their friends with them. All of them went to the lunch counter, and the ones who could find seats sat down while the others stood around.

More and more students joined in day after day, until by the fourth day three hundred young black people quietly occupied the Greensboro Woolworths.

At the same time, students in other North Carolina towns began to do the same, holding what were known as ‘sit-ins’. They gained lots of attention from newspapers and the government.

After this the manager of Greensboro Woolworths closed the shop for a long time, afraid that there’d be violence, and the same thing happened at a lot of other sit-ins. There was a bit of trouble at some places, often caused by angry white people, but the whole point of the sit-ins was that they were intended to be peaceful. Nobody was threatened – all the students wanted was to sit quietly and have a coffee.

Did it work? Well, by July of that same year, the Greensboro lunch counter was serving both black and white people, and much the same happened in many other places. The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was opposed to segregation and he supported the students. And, just four years later in 1964, a law was passed that made segregation illegal – not just at lunch counters, but at beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries and all other public places where segregation had been happening.

The four students – Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain – became known as the Greensboro Four. A portion of the café’s counter and its four chairs were donated to a museum, with pictures of the four young men and an explanation of what happened. It was hoped that in this way, people would always remember how much of a difference people can make if they stand up for what they believe in.

Three of the men are alive and well. Ezell Blair joined an Islamic Centre, changed his name to Jibreel Khazan, and now works with people who have disabilities. Joseph McNeil became a stockbroker, and a general in the Air Force Reserve. Franklin McCain still works on boards and committees trying to improve life for people in North Carolina. David Richmond died at the age of 49, and was honoured for his commitment to human rights.

All four of these young men showed that when people stand up for what is right, the effects can ripple outwards and change a whole country, and maybe the whole world.

Back then, only fifty years ago, there were many people who thought racism was acceptable; that it was the right way to see the world. Now, we know racism is wrong in every way. The only people who say racism is acceptable are either deeply mistaken or are lying in order to win the support of people who are mistaken.

We are one human race, made up of different individuals. In our school we celebrate and enjoy the mixture of people that we have here – the languages, the traditions, the different faiths, the different ways of living. We can look back at segregation and see that, not only was it wrong, but it meant people were missing something precious and wonderful. Now, here, in our school, we can continue to celebrate the work that the Greensboro Four did – not only for their town, their state, and their country, but for the whole world.

A prayer
Lord, we celebrate your world in all its rich variety. We thank you for the differences that keep our community constantly renewed. We pray that the evil of racism will be driven from the hearts of those who have been deceived by it, and we thank you for all who work to create a just and equal society.

A thought
The world is too small and too fragile to accommodate meaningless differences between groups of people.


This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Gerald Haigh