Civil rights museum in Greensboro, N.C., honors 1960 protest at lunch counter

By Jennifer Bringle
Sunday, February 21, 2010

As he walked through the door of the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., one fateful day a half-century ago, college freshman Franklin McCain finally realized the gravity of what he was about to do.

"I thought, 'Well, this is the beginning of the end of my days as a college student,' " McCain said in a recent interview. "They'd be over because one of two things would happen: If I were lucky, I'd go to jail for a long time. Or if I wasn't that lucky, I'd get my head busted open and have a nice tombstone somewhere."

Neither of those things happened. Instead, McCain and three other black North Carolina A&T State University students -- Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), Joseph McNeil and David Richmond -- took seats at the whites-only lunch counter and made history. Not that they knew it at the time.

"We had no notion that we'd even be served," McCain told me. "What we wanted to do was serve notice, more than anything else, that we were going to be about trying to achieve some of the rights and privileges we were due as citizens of this country."

But their act of civil defiance led to a national movement of peaceful protests, with sit-ins staged in dozens of cities, and ultimately to racial equality under the law.

On Feb. 1, 50 years to the day after their momentous demonstration, the three surviving members of the Greensboro Four (Richmond passed away in 1990) gathered again at that Woolworth's building. This time they were joined by North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, fellow A&T alumnus Jesse Jackson and hundreds of onlookers for the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which celebrates their legacy with interactive exhibits recounting the struggles of the civil rights movement.

Graphic photos from the Jim Crow era -- lynched bodies burning, bloodied protesters and the disfigured corpse of Emmitt Till -- evoke a visceral reaction to the horrors of racism. Nearby, the sinister eyeholes of a Ku Klux Klan robe gaze from behind a glass case, and signs declaring "Colored only" recall a not-so-distant past of inequality.

"My son is 18 years old, and he couldn't even believe it," said Melvin "Skip" Alston, Guilford County commissioner and co-founder of the museum. "He asked, 'Daddy, did this really happen?' He looked at the photo of Emmitt Till in his casket, and he just couldn't believe it."

Interactive elements, such as a video-game-like simulation of the Jim Crow literacy test -- a pages-long exam designed to intimidate would-be African American voters -- educate children and adults too young to remember the injustices of the era.

Beyond the reminders of hate lie scenes of hope. A small auditorium features a full-size diorama of the Scott Hall dorm room where the four A&T students planned their demonstration. Outside the auditorium, a hallway representing the walk the students took to the Woolworth's, complete with photo illustrations of landmarks they passed along the street, leads to the luncheonette, which seems untouched by time. The long, L-shaped lunch counter (a portion of which is in the National Museum of American History) has been restored to its original look: Signs tout 10-cent cups of coffee and 65-cent turkey dinners, while stainless-steel commercial appliances gleam and the mirrored walls shine as if from a morning polish. But the chrome-and-vinyl stools induce the strongest feeling of reverence; their seats, cracked and worn with age, stand as a monument to the significance of an action as ordinary as sitting down.

As the first visitors filed through the museum, McCain, Khazan and McNeil stood by, living reminders of that historic day. And for them, the museum serves as much more than a history lesson.

"When I see that museum, the thoughts I have are probably different from most people," McCain said. "I think, 'Here is what vision, sacrifice and commitment will do for you.' It says to me that you can really do anything that you want to if you practice those three principles."

"At the same time, that museum causes me to examine myself and say, 'What have I done lately?' I'll always get the test when I see that museum."

Bringle is a freelance writer and editor in Greensboro, N.C.

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

134 S. Elm St.

Greensboro, N.C.; 336-274-9199,

Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Admission $8, $6 students and seniors, $4 children ages 6-12.

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