Friday, June 5, 2009


When and how did it all begin?
by Charlie Leck

Most of you aren’t old enough to remember, but take my word for it, the 1960s were amazing in so many, many ways. The civil rights movement – a movement attempting to get equal rights for racial minorities in America – was a big part of the chaos of American history during that decade.

When and how did it all begin?
Well, a major civil right hero wasn’t behind it all. Neither was any single one of the big civil rights organizations. I’ve looked at and identified a lot of events as the beginning points of the 1960s, a decade that formed my thinking and stamped its character so indelibly on me. Rosa Park refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955. One could try to argue it was the beginning of the 60s. In a book I wrote, I dated the beginning of that historic period as the school integration crisis of 1956 that caused Eisenhower to send federal troops into the south.

Now, I would point to something else. When February 1, 2010 rolls around, it will mark the 50th anniversary of the lunch counter sit-in that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina. No organization was behind it and no civil right leader planned or motivated it. Much like Rosa Parks and her tired feet, the historic action of that day, nearly 50 years ago, came about as a result of a dormitory bull session between two roommates and two other students at the nearly all black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.

To repeat, there was no organizational structure behind it and it had no structured set of goals. The four just decided one night to do it. They were tired of not being allowed to slide up to the fountain-counter and sit down to have a coke and burger. Those places were for “whites-only.” The colored folk were relegated to a stand-up table at a far end of the dining area of F.W. Woolworth’s five and dime store. They were allowed to spend their money anywhere else in the store – to buy toothpaste or menstrual pads or pillow cases.

So a nagging kind of anger motivated the four students, Joseph McNeil, Izell Blair, Franklin McCain and David Richmond, to go over to the Woolworth store to buy a few items and then slide into the stools at the lunch counter. There, they asked to be served. A black woman working behind the counter sneered at them.

“You are stupid! Ignorant! You’re dumb! That’s why we can’t get anywhere!”

The shocked lady pointed them to the other end, where they belonged. They stayed put and they were ignored. They came back each day and eventually they started to get some attention from the press. The white folks asked for a breather, to work out some solutions. The students, who had been joined now by other students, consented to stay away for two weeks; however, the sit-in had become larger than they were and the next day there were over two dozen students at the counter. Lunch counters at other Woolworth stores attracted black students from other colleges in Durham and Raleigh. Then it happened in Charlotte, Fayetteville, High Point and other North Carolina communities. By mid-month there were sit-ins in Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The 60s had begun. They got started on February 1, 1960. I was a college student and I was hooked. I watched the action on the TV in the basement rec room of our dorm.

The non-violent character of the student demonstrations inspired civil rights leaders and a new way to confront injustice was born in America.

And it all began as a result of dormitory bull session. Soon, we'll celebrate that event’s 50th anniversary. I hope we make a big deal about it. How I remember those brave but frightened faces, sitting at that counter -- at that counter where they had every right to be.

1 comment:

  1. A friend from Kentucky read this blog moments after it was posted and excitedly called to tell me how clearly he remembers that week.
    "Support among black college students was almost unanimous," he told me. "It was an exciting moment. Over 80 percent of the students at NC A & T got involved. You are right. It WAS the beginning. SNCC was formed shortly after these events. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned so much from these sit-ins."