The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before video of a Starbucks arrest, images of lunch counter sit-ins helped launch a movement

The concept of racial profiling dates back decades, and it’s prevalent throughout U.S. history. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

On a frigid day in February, four black students entered a department store in Greensboro, N.C., sat down at a lunch counter and expected to go hungry.

A hostile reception in 1960 was not a surprise, either, after they asked to be served at a segregated F.W. Woolworth’s dining counter. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” the waitress told Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan).

The students offered receipts showing school supplies bought at the five-and-dime for classes at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and asked why their money was green in one area of the store and black in another.

They were refused service again and told to leave — a request that was similar to one that sparked controversy Thursday, when a white Starbucks manager accused two black men of trespassing while they waited in a Philadelphia store, prompting a police response.

Back in 1960, the Greensboro Four did not leave. They opened their textbooks and began to study.

A failure to receive their order was part of a demonstration plan created by the students to protest segregated public spaces. Brown v. Board of Education struck down the practice in schools four years before, but places like pools and lunch counters prohibited blacks in many places.

And the four needed their story to be documented to fight a common claim dogging the civil rights movement: that abuse and threats from whites were exaggerated, and if they did exist, police crackdowns and civilian violence against them were appropriate because demonstrators were provocative.

Before the students sat down, they made arrangements with a local reporter to cover the story. And they decided to dress sharply and act polite to remove any doubt about their behavior, knowing images of students in suits and ties would send a particular message, Duke University history professor William Chafe told The Washington Post on Monday.

“Pictures of their open schoolbooks highlighted the absurdity of the students being treated as second-class citizens,” he said. Those images, like fire hoses blasting nonviolent protesters and dogs tearing into activists, were among potent symbols used to draw sympathy and support of civil rights for African Americans, he said.

Thursday’s incident in Philadelphia was evocative of  those crucial moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Two unidentified black men waiting for a business associate were asked to leave after they requested bathroom access. The manager called 911 when the men refused.

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Footage of police cuffing and removing the two men barreled across social media, prompting Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to publicly apologize and vow to meet with the men involved. The incident has provoked outcries of racial discrimination. Johnson has called for unconscious bias training for what he called a “reprehensible” incident.

In an echo of the civil rights movement, images from smartphones are capturing moments of perceived injustice in the black community and amplifying them on social media. Footage of police killing black men such as Stephon Clark in Sacramento and Philando Castile in Minnesota helped show what black communities have often told their white neighbors: Our reality is worse than you may understand.

“People don’t believe black people when they say this stuff happens. It does. They want to know the extenuating circumstances. There are none,” Melissa DePino, the woman who shared the viral video of the arrest in Starbucks, told Philadelphia Magazine.

But like Black Lives Matter and the Colin Kaepernick protests, whites have often taken issue with the way blacks have chosen to protest. In the spring of 1960, as the lunch-counter protests continued to surge, former president Harry S. Truman said he would have kicked out people performing a sit-in, had he a business.

“The Negro should behave himself and show he’s a good citizen. Common sense and good will can solve this whole thing,” he said. Truman had previously desegregated the military in 1948.

Truman’s words “serves to aid and abet the violent forces in the South,” Martin Luther King Jr. said on “Meet the Press” in April 1960.

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King understood the power of images then, as his message of nonviolent resistance beamed into homes across the nation.

Nonviolent protest, shown through photos and footage, served to help the country “reevaluate the stereotypes that they have developed concerning Negroes. … In the long run, it will transform the whole of American society,” he said. Within a week, those images showed hundreds of nonviolent protesters at Woolworth’s store.

Conceivably, Chafe said, videos of the incident that Starbucks CEO Johnson called hard to watch “can have the same powerful impact in terms of starting a much larger kind of protest.” Those are already underway in Philadelphia, with one leading to a store shutdown.

In October 1960, dozens of black demonstrators led by King were arrested at a lunch-counter protest in Atlanta, with 14 sent to jail after refusing to post bond.

The charge? Refusing to leave private property when requested, the New York Times reported then, similar to the 2018 incident in Philadelphia.

Counter sit-ins represented a sea change in demonstrations, Chafe said. The civil rights movement was in decline after the Montgomery bus boycotts ended in 1956. Those efforts were more passive; the refusal to use something was a difficult symbol to rally behind.

But the sit-ins were active and visceral and challenged segregation, or as King put it on “Meet the Press,” “the basic problem of human relations.” In one of the most prominent photos of the movement, white protesters douse black demonstrators and their white supporters with food in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, leading to more support for their cause.

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McCain told The Post years later that he had never expected to be served at the Greensboro store. “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,” he said.

A section of the counter was cut out and preserved in the Smithsonian. “The best feeling of my life,” McCain told the Associated Press, was “sitting on that dumb stool.” He died in 2014. Richmond died in 1990, and McNeil and Khazan are still alive.

In one photo of the second day of protest, the four men sit at the counter. The only thing visible on the counter is a book peeking through the gap next to McCain. The men are young and uncertain about what would happen. A weary-looking black cook stands behind the counter, allowed to work the counter but unable to eat at it.

By July 1960, Woolworth’s desegregated its dining areas. The Greensboro Four could now eat there while they studied. And the cook could, for the first time, take off his apron and sit on the stool to enjoy a meal.

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