Actually there was no lunch. But there was plenty of heroism when four college students sat at a Greensboro NC lunch counter in February 1960.
The students were told to go to the segregated snack bar in the back of the Woolworth 5 & 10 cent store, but they refused. And although the Woolworth staff would not serve them, the students also refused to leave until closing time and pledged to come back every day until they won the right to eat there.
It was an honor to hear one of the organizers of the protest a few days ago at the 9th Annual Northeast Regional Fair Housing and Civil Rights conference in Springfield MA. Joseph McNeil told a room of 500 attendees how much had hung in the balance for him at the time. A first-year student at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he feared that he could end up in jail and disastrously interrupt his college career. (Fortunately, his fears were not realized and he went on to graduate and eventually to become a major general in the U.S. Air Force.)
In the Q & A after his talk, a woman in the audience asked what his mother had thought about his decision to hold a sit-in at the lunch counter. He said she had been uneasy about it but had to agree that it was the right thing to do based on the values she and his father had taught him.
The Greensboro protest grew as students from area schools joined with the initial four, then more student protests erupted at Woolworth stores around the South. In July 1960 Woolworth reversed its policy which had been to let local managers decide whether or not to serve Black customers based on local customs.
McNeil described how the sit-down protests served as “a down payment on our manhood and womanhood” for him and his fellow students, both men and women. The action, he said, was driven by their belief in the “dignity of men” and “the moral order of the universe.”
How odd it is to read the following letter to the editor of the Greensboro Record published a few days after the 1960 sit-in began. Writer Ruby Coble’s reference to the protestors’ “lack of race pride and personal pride” is totally baffling today. However it represents a long-held idea of the majority of white Americans in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, that restaurants should only serve well-mannered people and that any Black people who demanded service in a white restaurant were clearly not well-mannered because they were barging in where they were not wanted.
Coble was right about one thing though. It was indeed much later than she thought.
McNeil received repeated standing ovations from conference goers last week. Everyone laughed when he said that he had always wanted to order coffee and apple pie at a Woolworth lunch counter but when he did, “The apple pie wasn’t very good.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2015