Monday, January 20, 2014

Lessons from the Greensboro Four

A little over a week ago, I read this obituary for Franklin McCain who, with three others, all college freshmen, staged a sit-in at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC in 1960.
It was not the first such sit-in. After the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate the public schools in 1954, activists tried to integrate lunch counters in Oklahoma City, Baltimore and other cities on the periphery of the segregated South. There had been similar efforts in the Deep South, particularly in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1955 and ’56 and in Durham, N.C., in 1957. 
But the Greensboro episode, by most estimations, had the widest impact, inviting national publicity and inspiring a heightened level of activism among college students and other youths. Later that year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most effective civil rights groups, was born in Southern black colleges.
Here's a picture from the beginning of the sit in (Franklin McCain is wearing glasses):

And here's a picture from day 6 of the protest:

 As the obit reports, "By the 5th day, more than a thousand had arrived." The sit-in began on February 1, 1960. They were finally served on July 25.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, I was thinking about what lessons I could draw from this particular story. One is that you need your friends. Another is that a small action can have much larger ramifications. Another is to be very specific about what you're going to do and what result you hope to achieve. Another is to expect it to take time. So much to learn.

Can I say also that I love the fact that McCain stayed in North Carolina after he graduated, worked for 35 years as a chemist, raised a family, and retired there. On the website for February 1, a documentary made about the sit-in, the bio for McCain notes, "As a resident of Charlotte, he has served on many boards and worked towards changes in local educational, civic, spiritual and political life." I bet he has.

Here's a picture of the Greensboro Four, taken at the Woolworth's counter in 1990. Franklin McCain is the one lifting the cup of coffee.

Well done, sirs.

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