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Looking for the Woolworth's Lunch Counter of 2006
Published on Saturday, February 4, 2006 by
Looking for the Woolworth's Lunch Counter of 2006
by Cynthia Bogard

Remember when protest was allowed to happen? When protest riveted the country and changed it too? In these dark days, when a grieving middle-aged mother is roughed up, removed and arrested for silently wearing the wrong t-shirt to a speech about how free we are, it's necessary to remember that it wasn't always this way.

Forty-six years ago this week, a silent protest by four young black men started a revolution. Remember?

It was on February 1, 1960 that Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, four freshmen enrolled at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, walked into the local Woolworth's in Greensboro, sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. They weren't, but they weren't arrested either and they remained seated at the counter, waiting, until the store closed that evening. By then, a crowd had gathered outside the store and news of the four young men's actions had spread throughout the state. The next day there were more than 20 students asking to be served. The following day other people showed up to sit-in at other lunch counters in Greensboro. By the sixth day the protests had attracted hundreds of participants, both black and white.

Newspapers all over the state ran banner headlines and some described in detail the strategies that the protesters used. Intense coverage of the sit-ins by newspapers and radio helped the protests to spread. Sympathizers in other cities scoured these stories of protest and then they replicated them in their own towns.

In the next two weeks sit-ins had spread to 15 other cities. By April, sit-ins - these straightforward and highly symbolic protests for recognition, justice, for equal treatment as American citizens - were taking place in more than 70 American cities.

A few months later, some of these protesters formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the pivotal student protest groups of the era. SNCC members and many other Americans continued to protest for the cause of civil rights. Three years later, President John F. Kennedy asked for legislation that would give all Americans "the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves." That same summer, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King thrilled a crowd of more than a quarter million protesters in Washington with his dream for a future of racial integration and equality. Less than a year later, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act came the following year. Both bills passed with bipartisan majorities in Congress.

These acts of protest and their effects inspired the hopes of millions of Americans and gradually gave rise to the women's movement, the disabled persons' movement and the gay rights movement. And civil rights expanded significantly for all of us.

What a contrast with our nation's trajectory today, sliding fast into the dark waters of civil rights repression, even abrogation.

Today, protest is contained in advance.

Our unpopular president gives speeches to audiences specially selected for their inability to criticize him. When he's not talking to members of our armed forces, he's regaling his tuxedoed funders or pre-screened loyal members of his fan club. And occasionally, he speaks before that august body, our elected Representatives, who find it too unseemly, in their gentleman's fashion, to disrupt the man who would be monarch. So he speaks without opposition and admonishes the other side to mind their manners. And they do.

At contentious events, protesters face police-created "free speech zones" - chain-link and cement-barricaded cordons far from the action - where would-be protesters can complain - to nobody.

The Republican PR machine regularly rolls out dismissive or derogatory names for progressive protesters before they even open their mouths. They are "French," "unpatriotic," even "traitors." We have a name now for what will happen to those who dare protest: They will be swift-boated.

The mainstream media finds protest a yawn. They barely cover it. Peaceful protest, by today's standards, is insufficiently dramatic. When more people than ever marched against the Vietnam War take to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq, newspapers bury it on page 23. The all-news channels spare 15 seconds in the wee hours to inform their viewers. And word of protest is contained.

Today's college students, the bulwark and often the shock troops of the movements of the sixties have been pre-contained too. They live at home with their parents until their late 20's (what could be more stultifying?), they work full-time, they take overloads to minimize their years in college. They mostly do these things because they must - the cost of an education is obscene these days and the widespread federal college education grants that gave the baby boomers the freedom and free time to protest no longer exist. Though many of today's students are dissatisfied with things as they are, most no longer believe in the potency of protest. So they don't.

The average American's response to protest has been contained too by the unrelenting cynicism that has become our cultural currency. Fed on a diet of television shows that revolve around glorified violence or humiliating the weak and nonconforming, our culture has seen to it that nothing shocks, nor impresses, nor moves the American heart anymore. We are indifferent. Thus are the potential effects of protest contained.

And in these days of massive technological abilities to snoop almost into our very thoughts, even those who still define themselves as citizens might hesitate to voice a protest. They self-censor and are contained.

We who continue to plan and participate in protests (and I do) knowing in advance that mostly we'll be unheard and contained, bear some of the blame too. It helps us through these hard times to gather with one another. But protests have become predictable rituals and we haven't often found the recipe to make them fresh again.

As Marcuse observed at a similar moment in our history, we have become a society without opposition.

America can't go back fifty years and regain the propriety that made that lunch counter protest a discomfiting act of persuasion. And we who would protest must keep faith with Gandhi, with Martin, with the Greensboro protesters and all those who were committed to non-violent social change.

But given the state of our union, it's crucial to free protest from the many ways it has been contained and find a way to make it shake up the nation again.

Where will we find the Woolworth's lunch counter of 2006?

Cynthia Bogard is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University in New York.


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