Woolworth sit-ins opened new stage in 1960s civil rights fight

By Terry Evans
August 23, 2021
April 1960 Young Socialist campaigns to build mass protest movement that won desegregation at Woolworth’s. Inset, Frank McCain in February 1960, who with three fellow Black students began sit-in movement in North Carolina.
Inset, Jack MoebesApril 1960 Young Socialist campaigns to build mass protest movement that won desegregation at Woolworth’s. Inset, Frank McCain in February 1960, who with three fellow Black students began sit-in movement in North Carolina.

“The best feeling of my life was sitting on that dumb stool,” Frank McCain said, describing the moment he and three other Black students sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, Feb. 1, 1960. “Nothing has ever happened to me since then that topped that good feeling of being clean and fully accepted and feeling proud of me,” he told a meeting celebrating the sit-ins 50th anniversary.

Their action launched a powerful social movement that was to sweep the country over the next year, lead to desegregation of lunch counters at Woolworth’s and other establishments, and marked the entry of a new generation into the fight to overthrow Jim Crow.

McCain described how any initial anxiety he had vanished and the four men, all studying at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, refused to move from their seats. The night before McCain, Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond finished planning their protest, propelled by “that little bit of courage that each of us instilled in each other.”

Some customers racially abused the four students. Sitting a few stools down was an older Caucasian woman who eyed them with what McCain took to be a “suspicious look.” But when she walked behind McCain and McNeil, she put her hands on their shoulders and said, “Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret you didn’t do this 10 years ago.”

“What I learned from that little incident,” McCain said, is “don’t you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them. I’m even more cognizant of that today,” he told NPR in 2008.

The next day, the four men returned with 15 other students. Within five days 1,000 were trying to squeeze into the store to demand desegregation.

Across the country young people, Black and Caucasian, seized on the example set by the students. By April lunch counter sit-ins had spread all across the South and support actions all across the North.

Sensing the widespread support they could win, the young people who joined sit-ins refused to back down when the cops, courts and Ku Klux Klan attacked their fight. “You don’t ask permission to make a revolution,” McCain told several hundred people at the Greensboro event marking the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins. It also marked the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on the site of what had been the Woolworth’s store.

When 35 students at Alabama State College in Montgomery were arrested after sitting in at the lunch counter of the county courthouse, Gov. John Patterson ordered their expulsion from college and banned students from demonstrating there. The next day a rally of 300 at the college adopted a resolution saying, “If one student is expelled the entire student body will resign,” reported the March 7, 1960, Militant.

Cops arrested over 80 students at a sit-in at a McClellan’s store in Nashville, Tennessee, in February. Over 3,000 students turned up at their trial to protest the arrests. Two months later rightist gangs attacked students joining sit-ins in the same city, but the protests continued.

By the summer, 100,000 Black and Caucasian students in the South alone had joined sit-ins demanding to be served. In July Woolworth’s owners announced it would desegregate.

The Militant, Socialist Workers Party and newly founded Young Socialist Alliance joined the protests and campaigned for support nationwide.

To build on the success of the sit-ins, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the fall of 1960. It played a leading role in the Freedom Rides the following year, the Freedom Summer in 1964 and struggles all over the South.

Malcolm X explained that the key to awakening Blacks and other revolutionary-minded fighters was not to stress their oppression, but to help them recognize their self-worth. You could see this in the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, where strikers wore signs saying “I Am a Man,” a strike that helped galvanize the final consolidation of the defeat of Jim Crow.

McCain explained how this happened to him. “I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak. And not only gained it, but had developed quite a lot of respect for it.”