A Half-Century Ago, Black College Students Sparked the Civil Rights Movement

As we are about to begin the celebration of Black History Month, it is important to remember that 50 years ago this week four African-American students from North Carolina A&T State University undertook a courageous act of civil disobedience that lit a spark of civil rights protests throughout the South. At 4 p.m. on February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond walked into the Woolworth’s store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. The students took seats at the store’s lunch counter and ordered coffee. When they were denied service the four refused to leave. The next day they came back with 20 other students. Within five days 300 students joined the protest and the manager closed the store. The lunch counter sit-in movement spread throughout the South. In July, Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counters.

Over the ensuing years following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, the battle lines of the civil rights movement were waged for the most part in the halls of Congress and in the courts. The lunch counter sit-ins initiated an intense five-year period of protest and civil disobedience culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.