Things did not have to happen the way they happened. Events that seem in retrospect to have been inevitable were contingent as they unfolded. Choices were made. We remember the Greensboro Sit-ins for what transpired here, but how things happened is important, too.
My newspaper column is about the four young men who started the Greensboro Sit-ins 49 years ago today, and the way they did what they did.
You can read the whole thing after the jump.
Photo by Lisa Scheer; click to enlarge.
Greensboro Four defined by choices made
By Edward Cone
News & Record
There were four young men, students at A&T. They are famous now for sitting down at a segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth's store on South Elm Street, 49 years ago today, for helping to propel the civil rights movement to new heights. Do not confuse these men with the big bronze statues in their likeness on the campus of their alma mater.
Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, the late David Richmond, and Ezell Blair Jr., now known as Jibreel Khazan: We recognize their legacy in our everyday lives and, many years on, in the inauguration of a black president. But things did not have to happen the way they happened. Events that seem in retrospect to have been inevitable were contingent as they unfolded. Choices were made. We remember the Greensboro Sit-ins for what transpired here, but how things happened is important, too.
The Greensboro Four chose a strategy of nonviolence, which made it easy for others to rally to their cause. They showed great physical courage and perseverance, which allowed the spark they had struck to catch and spread. And they sought inclusion in an America that had made them second-class citizens, which helped America become what it had pretended to be.
I knew the story of the Sit-ins. I knew the pride this city takes in this piece of local history. But I did not know how the philosophy of passive resistance had come to the store at the corner of South Elm and Sycamore. I looked at myself, and at my own 17-year-old son, and I wondered, where does a college kid find the strength to risk his life for justice? I was curious about how the men themselves see their roles, and the role of Greensboro itself.
So I asked them. I stuck with my narrow line of inquiry, but each conversation had its own flavor. Khazan spoke of his family's deep roots in Greensboro's Warnersville community. McNeil, a retired major general in the Air Force reserves, was economical and direct. And McCain summed up their thinking in vivid terms: "We knew that this thing called love worked, this thing called patience."
Nonviolence as strategy
They talked about it for months, even before they knew exactly what it would be. Khazan had wanted to sit at that Woolworth's counter since he was a kid. Sit-ins in Midwestern cities had caught their attention.
"It developed over time," says McNeil. "After years of frustration. It was there for our parents, it was there for us, it would be there for our children if we didn't do something." And then, a catalyst: He could not sit down to eat during a long bus trip over Christmas vacation. Enough.
Nonviolence was always part of the plan. It was a moral choice and a practical one, too. That was stressed at the Blairs' house the evening before they acted.
"We were from Greensboro, our whole community would be blamed if things went wrong," says Khazan. McNeil says, "We knew violence would bring a bad image to what we were doing, and we needed to be in position to say, 'We're going to keep coming back.' "
McCain sees the practical and the moral as intertwined. "I didn't believe in violence, and neither did my friends, but even if you were to choose that route, we didn't have the guns or the numbers. People don't know how to combat nonviolence -- when they do something to irritate or harm you, and you turn and say, 'I love you because you're my brother,' they say, 'What kind of nut is this?' We needed to bring people to our side, and it wasn't automatic. You don't want to cause people to turn away."
The pole stars were Christ and Gandhi. Closer to home, Martin Luther King Jr. was showing how the strategy could work. "We modeled ourselves on people who had seen tremendous success in the face of near overwhelming odds, with little support," says McCain. They were raised as Christians and said the Lord's Prayer together before walking toward downtown.
Gandhi and King they knew from the lively black press of the day -- The Afro-American out of Baltimore, the New Journal & Guide from Virginia, Ebony -- as well as newsreels and the powerful new medium of television (television would spread the news of their own deeds, with sit-ins starting quickly in other cities). They learned from conversations with parents and teachers and preachers. McCain even had a comic book about Gandhi.
Physical harm or death were very real possible repercussions of the sit-ins. The four went anyway. Khazan remembers David Richmond, who had been a legendary athlete at Dudley High School, as "cool, a warrior. He said, 'Let's do it.' That was his expression." The other guys seemed confident, too. The smallest of the group was scared.
"I was wondering, would I be hit? Would I be arrested?" says Khazan. "I thought about a pretty girl I knew -- maybe I'll never see her again. I had read about people getting arrested and never making it to jail. I was thinking about Emmett Till. Those things were going through my head. I was hoping my parents would say no when we told them. My knee was going up and down when we sat at the counter. But I reached a point where I was ready to die for a cause."
The young men were taunted and menaced. Female college students in the crowd gathered outside to support them were jostled and pushed. McNeil says faith kept him going. "There were horrible things that went on around us. You had to believe you could keep coming back, spend time in jail, and stay strong."
McCain drew his courage from a different place. "I was angry as hell about what was happening to us," he says. "A man can't live without a modicum of dignity. I felt I had nothing to lose. I had a commandment to do what I did. It was the less terrible choice."
A place at the table
King spoke of "a dream deeply rooted in the American dream" and quoted the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, Anthony Lewis wrote recently, he "made clear that his vision of the future for black Americans was for them to be part of the larger society, not embittered opponents of it." That vision was in the minds of the Greensboro Four, more than three years before King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.
"Very much so," says McCain. "We thought we were part of the American experiment. We were Americans." So they bucked a black establishment that counseled against sit-ins and picketing and protests in hopes of gradual gains. "They told us we should study and become doctors and lawyers, but this was imperative to do first," he says.
I asked the three men how Greensboro figures in their own view of events. McNeil speaks warmly of white students from local colleges who turned out alongside the kids from A&T to support them. "I'm not sure the initial response would have been the same in another place," he says. The participation of white students, adds McCain, was "heartwarming" and "doubly welcome, because their presence caused people to think about what was happening."
Khazan grew up in a segregated Greensboro but also saw close relationships between some white and black families. "Things went beyond the traditions of racism," he says. He remembers a white man in the Woolworth's store, a veteran of the Second World War, who urged the counter man to serve the students, and asked them if they would be back the next day. "That was a lesson in history, and ethics, right there."
Yet McCain is ambivalent about Greensboro's image as a progressive city. "If there was no Bull Connor, it was because the people pulling strings didn't want it," he says. After some hesitation from the power structure, "the façade worked to our advantage. The city fathers wanted nothing to tarnish that false image they lived under." I asked if doing the right thing for less than noble reasons makes it less right. He laughed.
At some level, one that seems worth remembering today, this was the story of a powerful friendship. "We had something unique," says McCain. "There were four people who learned to respect and love each other, who had the same convictions and concerns at the same time. We were all marching in concert. The relationship to each other -- that was the prime reason for the success of the movement in Greensboro."
© News & Record 2009