52 Years Later, Lunch Counter Sit-Ins Still Inspire

by Andy Piascik

Fifty-two years ago, on February 1, 1960, four African-American students from North Carolina A and T University walked into the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, sat down at the lunch counter, and ordered coffee. The four – Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Alfred McNeil and the late David Richmond – were refused and told to move to the area of the store designated for blacks. Instead the four men remained seated at the counter through much of a tense afternoon. The four returned the following day with 23 of their fellow students and again sat down and ordered coffee. Again they were refused, and again they remained for much of the day. A larger crowd of supporters came the next day, followed by a still larger crowd the day after that. High school students joined the protests, as did many residents from nearby neighborhoods, and Greensboro was filled with a life force that would soon electrify people across the planet.

The events in Greensboro revitalized a movement and helped usher in one of the most significant stages in the ongoing struggle for democracy in the United States. Direct action was the main tactic utilized and in a matter of days thousands of people were sitting-in, picketing and demonstrating at dozens of Woolworth’s and other stores with similar policies. As it grew, gained strength and spread to other spheres, the movement rocked the United States to its core. In a remarkably short time, the  acts of millions of everyday people propelled the US out of the company of South Africa, Rhodesia and other rogue states founded on the principles of white supremacy to something at least remotely resembling a civilized nation.

The change came not from enlightenment on high but from hard, difficult, dangerous work. Southern blacks were fortified in their efforts by blacks and whites, students and non, from all over the country. There were tensions and mistakes aplenty, but schools were started, voter registration drives launched and Freedom Rides undertaken. College students worked alongside sharecroppers from whom they obtained wisdom they could not have gotten at any university. Jews who had never been south of Stuyvesant Town worked alongside blacks who had never met a Jew. Northern blacks educated to be ashamed of their poor country kin discovered there was a rich, inspiring part of the story they hadn’t been taught. After years of toiling in obscurity, organic leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker reached a national audience, their lifelong cause having become the cause of millions.

As is almost always the case in US history, popular upsurge was met with resistance and incredible violence by the established order. Scenes of police gassing and beating peaceful civilians soon became commonplace and were beamed around the world day after day, making a sick joke of the notion that the US was the leader of the free world. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured in jails that would have made Stalin smile. Many served long sentences or were disappeared. Some, from heroic leaders like Medgar Evers to four young girls blown up in a Birmingham church, were murdered.

Frequently the cowardly acts of terror were perpetrated under cover of night by the same sheriffs and police who beat peaceful demonstrators by day. After punching the clock, they simply exchanged their badges for white sheets and hoods, their appetite for violence apparently unquenchable. Others, ultimately more dangerous, wore expensive suits and spouted high-falutin’ nonsense about Camelot.  Despite the violence and killings, the movement flourished due to     the bravery and vision of those involved, as well as to the democratic spirit of the greater citizenry. Eventually US-style apartheid was brought to its knees.

The Greensboro 4, like so many of their generation, carried their work forward for years thereafter. In addition, the spirit in which they acted lives on among many today. It lives on, for example, in the Occupy movement that, among many other accomplishments, has pushed the issue of unrelenting corporate class warfare center stage. It lives on in the work of people in Washington State who blockaded armaments earmarked for the ongoing slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan. It lives on in the Earth First-ers who work on the frontlines against the relentless destruction of the biosphere. And it lives on in the workers who recently occupied the Republic factory in Chicago and saved a plant and jobs their bosses deemed expendable.

This last in particular will perhaps resonate with Bridgeporters who live amidst  industrial ruins and acres of vacant lots where productive work once was done. Suppose workers at Bryant Electric and Bassick and Underwood and Jenkins and Bridgeport Brass and Casco had done what those in Chicago did, what many the world over have done in recent years. What if they had said goodbye and good riddance to bosses who chose to further line their pockets by moving elsewhere, then taken control of their workplaces. As we slide ever downward and the only “solutions” offered by the corporate class and their hired hands are handouts to billionaires and denunciations of immigrants, we would do well to consider the alternative of workers owning their own work.

Perhaps most importantly, the spirit of the sit-ins lives on in the courage of the many in uniform who have come to see the actions of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan as crimes against humanity. With the Obama administration behaving in a manner that is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor, with not only an escalation in Afghanistan but with threats of an invasion Iran as well, the possibility of an army that refuses to fight would be an Achilles heel of the greatest magnitude. If even one-tenth of those who have Support Our Troops bumper stickers and tee-shirts were to actively support those soldiers who stand in solidarity with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, imperial delusions of world domination would be seriously checked.

Of one thing we can be more certain even than death and taxes, and that is that the super-rich will not relent in their war against us unless we stop them. Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Interfaith Workers Justice, Food Not Bombs, Courage to Resist, the new Students for a Democratic Society and hundreds of other organizations work to do just that. We can best honor the legacy of the Greensboro 4 whose shoulders we stand on by taking our lead from their actions on those glorious days fifty years ago.

A version of this article appeared in the Connecticut Post in Bridgeport

Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who has written about working-class issues for Z Magazine, The Indypendent, Union Democracy Review, Labor Notes and other publications.

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