50 years later, Greensboro Four get Smithsonian award for civil rights actions

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

For 50 years now, the faces of the students have been etched in our memories, four young men at a lunch counter, nattily dressed, clean-shaven, looking over their shoulders, serious about their actions, perhaps a little uncertain about its results.

Sitting at the whites-only counter in a North Carolina Woolworth's, they asked for cups of coffee and were refused service. The Greensboro Four didn't leave, instead stepping into history on Feb. 1, 1960.

On Wednesday night on a plain stage at the National Museum of American History, a floor below where an eight-foot-long portion of that same lunch counter is on exhibit, stood living history. Now only three remain, Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin E. McCain and Joseph A. McNeil; together they heard, over and over again, but respectfully, how they had sat down so others could stand up.

"We started sitting down," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), in a thunderous tone, describing the flood of sit-ins after the Greensboro movement. He was a student in the South when the protest by the four North Carolina A&T College students became national news, and he felt the backlash. "They spit on us, put out cigarettes in our hair. If it hadn't been for you, I don't know where we would be tonight," he said.

The three men, as well as David L. Richmond, who died in December 1990, were given the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, one of the highest awards of the Smithsonian, during this anniversary week of the start of their protest.

McNeil said he had reflected during the ceremony on several principles he had learned during the sit-ins. "The first one was the power of nonviolence and how it could be used to bring about change," said McNeil, a retired major general from the Air Force Reserve, who has worked in the financial industry and aviation administration. He lives in Hempstead, N.Y.

"And then the importance of service before self. I think of all those people -- they didn't ask, 'What is in it for me?' "

After the ceremony, McCain, whose home is in Charlotte, sat by the old counter, posing for pictures and signing slips of paper. "The whole concept of honoring the 50th anniversary is humbling. It causes some introspection. People have made some conclusions, and I have to ask, 'Did I measure up?' " said McCain, a chemist who is now chairman of the North Carolina A&T State University board of trustees.

Within weeks of the lunch-counter actions, a movement was galvanized, and sit-ins began occurring at segregated facilities in more than 70 cities. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded in April 1960, bringing to the forefront Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Marion Barry, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Stokely Carmichael. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter was desegregated. As historians and filmmakers have often said, applauding the bravery of the four freshman from North Carolina A&T, "It wasn't on the menu, but justice was served."

Providing a roll call of the heroes of the era, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks, Khazan said they had all left behind footprints. He urged continued activism, saying, "Bring our children to this altar of love." Khazan lives in New Bedford, Mass., and has spent his life helping the developmentally disabled.

The Woolworth's store closed in 1993. The counter acquired a mystique in the annals of civil rights history, and the students became heroes of the struggle. The National Museum of American History, led by Lonnie G. Bunch (then chief curator at the museum) and curator William Yeingst, fought hard to get part of the counter. They negotiated with Woolworth's and with Greensboro's white power structure, as well as with representatives of the black community who wanted to preserve their history.

The Smithsonian prevailed, and in 1994, Yeingst drove a truck with the new acquisition through a snowstorm back to the museum. First displayed near the Star Spangled Banner to show how America has evolved through protest and sacrifice, said Bunch (now the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture), the counter now has its own unique location.

And Monday marked the reopening of the 1929 Woolworth's store in Greensboro -- as the location of the new International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

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