Saturday, January 11, 2014

Woolworth's and One Man's Legacy to America

I saw a posting on Facebook this morning that one of the "Greensboro Four" had died.  Franklin McCain died last Thursday after a brief illness.  I wouldn't have recognized his name, or even remembered "The Greensboro Four," if the posting hadn't included the iconic photo above.  In 1960 four African-American college freshmen sat down at a Woolworth's "whites-only" lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and asked for service.  Their request was refused and they were asked to leave.  They remained in their seats and thus started a sit-in movement that changed American history.  This non-violent protest touched off six months of sit-ins and economic boycotts and paved the way for many other protests of racists policies.

In February of 1960 I was 9 years old, yet I remember so much of the civil rights movement because it was brought into my middle class living room every day.  On the evening news we watched police attack peaceful protesters.  Life magazine arrived by mail every Friday with vivid photos of the struggle for civil rights.  Even though I lived thousands of miles from the south, I knew the songs and the chants of protests from television.  Our inhumanity was recorded and broadcast to the world.  And eventually our culture began to change.

We owe a debt to those brave individuals who stood up to change the status quo. As we look back in our history it is difficult to believe that there was a time where, not only did discrimination exist (because it stills exists now), but that such blatant discrimination was not recognized as wrong.  

The Woolworth's chain went out of business in 1997, but that lunch counter from the Greensboro Woolworth's lives on at the Smithsonian American History Museum.  It was one of my favorite exhibits to visit when I was in Washington D.C. because it reminded me of the power of a few individuals to make lasting change.  One of these days I will take my granddaughters to the museum.  It's important that we remember.

Rest in Peace, Franklin McCain. 


  1. It does boggle the mind in retrospect. Interesting that the server behind the counter is a black man. Can you imagine the pressure and confusion he must have felt in denying service to other black men. How was it that a Caucasian could be served by a black man, but could not sit at the same counter? They were indeed brave young men...many were beaten or lynched for less.

  2. Troubled times.Society is barely better. When will be ever learn.

  3. I was thinking the same thing Joeh said! It's great that they have that counter in the Smithsonian, where future generations can see it!

  4. I agree with your previous commenters, I am very grateful that this counter is preserved in the Smithsonian. I'm sure those young men would never have believed it, the difference they made. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I would have missed it otherwise.

  5. It might seem like a long time ago, but it really wasn't. I remember those times well, and how it is that things on the outside seem changed, but in reality, it really has not. Some people's hearts have not moved on. Just hearing on the news of what the patriarch of the popular Duck Dynasty program said and the support he has received shows us that the same prejudices are alive and accepted in this country. There is hope though because our children are a generation removed and know little or understand the injustices that went before and don't accept or tolerate such terrible wrongs. I pray this newer generation will help bring forth a better, more kinder world.

  6. I hadn't heard of his death. It's so interesting to read this at the end of a week I've spent teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my fifth graders. We've been watching videos of the sit-ins (among other things) and it's been heartening to see their reactions. These are kids who don't see skin color first and who have grown up immersed in the Golden Rule. You and I are the same age, but we didn't have television so I grew up not knowing what was going on in the south, but hearing on a daily basis that there were no good black people. Interesting, reflective post.

  7. From ( a comment from "Jennifer," three years ago: "Yes, Woolworth's did employ black people at the lunch counter and elsewhere in the store. See this website and read the blurb about Geneva Tisdale: http://www.februaryonedocument...
    When Woolworth's integrated the lunch counters, the first black people they allowed to eat there were employees."
    So that's the answer to Joeh and Ms. A.
    I feel sorry for that guy behind the counter. Where was he supposed to look? Was he one of the bad guys, or was he just doing his job? ...which is pretty much the question we'd have to ask about the Woolworth's manager.
    Our society was different then and is better now. If it weren't, nobody would have turned a hair at the Duck Dynasty guy's comments.

  8. I enjoyed this post and the comments that have followed. I, too, was struck by the black man behind the counter.
    In reflecting I can see that this was all about economics. The black man worked cheap and did as he was told. Slave economy gave way, but the message it printed on hearts and minds remained. The sit-in broke the back of segregationists economically, but the deeply held beliefs that allowed them to willfully treat other human beings so badly have taken a long time to be erased.

  9. This is a great reminder of how far our society has come. Sadly, we have a long ways to go yet. Thanks for writing this.

  10. Dear Jann, thank you so much for reminding us of the courage of those four young men who were asking nothing more than to be served a meal. But of course, they were asking for something much larger--to be thought of by whites as human beings worthy of respect. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Peace.

  11. It's an amazing part of our history.
    Every time I see this photo, I think about the guy working there. Can you imagine the things he had to put up with to keep that job.
    Or the things going on in the heads of the guys sitting at the counter. We live in a great country, but it is kind of embarrassing to think that this happened in our lifetimes. I agree with whoever said that we still have work to do. That is so true.

    What a screwed up period of time.
    Are you familiar with this Billie Holiday song?

    Strange Fruit

    Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
    Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

    Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
    The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
    Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
    Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

    Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
    For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
    For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
    Here is a strange and bitter crop.


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