Where the Wildfire Began: visiting the Civil Rights Museum, Greensboro, NC

Last Saturday, while on my four month stay in the USA, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. This museum is in the Woolworth building, which holds a special place in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Located in downtown Greensboro, it is the place where four young African American students of the local North Carolina A&T college revived a struggling movement. On February 1st, 1960, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill, David Richmond and Ezell Blair attempted to get served in the all-white restaurant at Woolworth’s. The shop was open to all customers regardless of colour, but the lunch counter was for whites only. In what seems like a fairly mundane form of action, the students were very nervous about the possible reactions of whites, and were firmly aware that they were probably risking their lives. Asking for food and coffee, they were refused service, but they bravely remained at the counter until the store closed.

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A large image in the lobby of the museum showing David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair and Joseph McNeill, as they left Woolworth’s on 1st February, 1960.

This direct action sparked off the so-called student sit-ins. From the very next day and over the course of the following months, thousands of students across the country took part in similar protests, often enduring the terrorizing effect of white intimidation and violence. By April of 1960, over 2000 protestors had been arrested, and over 70,000 had taken part. The action of the four young students on the 1st February also led to the eventual creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and holds a particular significance in the Civil Rights movement as it demonstrated the widespread dissatisfaction of African Americans with the slow pace of change. It also demonstrated the importance of grassroots movements that could organize themselves without the leadership of major figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.

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A view of the Woolworth building from South Elm Street in Greensboro.
6th day Sit ins
Students held a sit-in at a lunch counter for a sixth day of protests at Woolworth’s. United Press International.

The museum has organized the site of these first sit-ins by placing them within the context of a long Civil Rights movement. The tour, hosted by very knowledgeable and likeable guides, begins with the immediate aftermath of slavery and the institutionalization of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation in the South, and goes on to relate the events of 1960 to other significant moments in the movement. Also present are various artefacts from the segregation era, such as an authentic KKK cloak and hood, and signage indicating the segregated public facilities. I even found out that African Americans paid 10 cents for warm Coca-Cola from an automatic dispenser, while whites paid 5 cents for iced Cola, despite using the same machine which was placed across two walls.

Sit In Anniversary
The lunch counter at Woolworth’s (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

The lunch counter itself has been preserved fairly faithfully as it was in 1960. Despite its fairly mundane and unexceptional appearance, seeing the counter (and it was in a much larger space than I imagined) was a fairly moving experience. It really brought home the courage those young students demonstrated in simply taking a seat and asking to be served. It also reminded me how important it is as a historian to actually see and experience these kinds of things in person. Another question I began to ponder as I left the museum, was the potentially paradoxical function and effects of museums such as this. Do they act as just reminders of struggles past, and warn us of the potentially damaging consequences of giving in to divisive political rhetoric? Or, by labelling such sites as ‘heritage’, do they relegate things like the Civil Rights movement to history, and blind us to the existing struggles of the present day?

 

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