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Roots of a Protest That Altered History

The sit-ins were less sudden than they seeemed.

by William H. Chafe

Fifty years ago today, four black freshmen at Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, N.C., helped change American history.

They walked into the Woolworth's department store, purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then sat down at the lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee. "We don't serve Negroes," they were told.

Refusing to leave, they opened their school books and started to study. Four hours later, the store closed and the students returned to campus, where word of their protest spread quickly.

The next day, the four returned to Woolworth's, this time accompanied by 19 of their classmates. The day after that, there were 66; the next day, 100. On the fifth day, 1,000 Greensboro blacks, of all ages, descended on the central business district until the entire city closed down. Within eight weeks, similar sit-ins occurred in 54 cities in nine states of the old Confederacy.

The Greensboro sit-ins - a simple act of dramatizing the moral absurdity of segregation - led, over the next five years, to the dismantling of Jim Crow, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the re-enfranchisement of black citizens, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

How exactly did this happen?

Some have described the sit-in movement as an "immaculate conception" - a sudden and nearly total reversal of decades of accommodation and subservience, achieved by a new generation freed from the constraints of the past.

In truth, though, blacks had been fighting Jim Crow for decades, and nowhere was the resistance more vigorous than in Greensboro. There, in 1943, Ella Baker formed the NAACP Youth Group, which many of the sit-in demonstrators joined in the '50s to discuss advancing the struggle. At their meetings, the students learned about David Jones, the president of Bennett, Greensboro's all-black women's college, who insisted on hiring desegregated construction crews to build new dormitories. Jones also invited first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to a black and white audience on his campus.

The youth-group students also visited Dudley High School, where Vance Chavis, a science instructor, had his students address voter-registration letters in his homeroom. Chavis told his students that he had never ridden in the back of a Jim Crow bus or accepted a "buzzard's roost" balcony seat in the downtown movie theater.

Many of the students also went to a church whose pastor immediately offered them use of his mimeograph machine when the protests began.

The sit-in protesters had clearly found a new language to express their belief in racial justice. But they were carrying forward a lesson and a legacy they had learned from role models who taught them the meaning of dignity and self-affirmation.

A second misconception about the sit-ins is that they were a peculiarly American phenomenon - another example of American "exceptionalism." In fact, the values expressed by the sit-in demonstrators were universal. They came from Gandhi and from Jesus, from Locke and from Rousseau. They had already fostered anticolonial revolutions in India, Africa, Indochina, and, most memorably, in the streets of Budapest in 1956.

Nowhere were the parallels stronger than with South Africa. There, too, a racist regime denied black people political rights, regulated where and when they could travel or live, and denied them the right to use the same sidewalks, train compartments, or bathrooms as whites. There, too, people like Chief Albert Luthuli and lawyer Nelson Mandela stood up to protest, putting their lives on the line.

To honor that struggle, Robert F. Kennedy went to the University of Cape Town in 1966 to deliver a message of hope.

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others," Kennedy told the students, " ... he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." He said, "It is from [such] numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped."

Fifty years ago in Greensboro, as in South Africa, protesters shaped history by building on the foundations of resistance they had inherited. Today, the citizens of Tehran, Harare, and other places carry forward that tradition, hoping their "diverse acts of courage" can also change history.

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