Powerful lessons from the Greensboro Four

On February 1, 1960, four African American college students—Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond—sat down at the segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.

On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in (1960), Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record).
On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in (1960), Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record).

On February 4th, 2010, nearly 300 students filed into the museum's auditorium to participate in a special program: Youth Town Hall with the Greensboro Civil Rights Pioneers: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Woolworth Lunch Counter Student Sit-In. As they did so, thousands more were taking their seats in classrooms, auditoriums, and homes all over the country to take part in the event via live webcast. The surviving members of the Greensboro Four and their families had come to Washington, D.C., the night before to receive the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for their important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Members of the Greensboro Four and museum staff at the Youth Town Hall (2010)
Members of the Greensboro Four and museum staff at the Youth Town Hall (2010)

Most of the students at the Youth Town Hall were about the same age as the Greensboro Four when they changed history by sitting at the lunch counter, a section of which is on display at the museum, and asking to be served. As I looked across the auditorium and saw the faces of the students and interacted with those online, I wondered what they would take away from this day. How would their experience listening to and interacting with the Greensboro activists impact them?

I decided to follow up with students who attended in person and who watched the webcast to find out.

A student asks a question at the town hall
A student asks a question at the town hall 

"I think students today could learn from the students of the Civil Rights Movement. To act upon an issue without violence and to be able to stand up for themselves when they think something or someone isn't fair or right. The Greensboro Four didn't come up with a plan to destroy or kill or harm anyone they just walked into the the store then sat at the counter and asked nicely to be served. They didn't act in a violent way and this began a movement for civil rights."

– 8th grade student, Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Washington, D.C.
 On-site Audience Member

"I learned that if some thing is not fair or is not equal you should fight for that right to have and if you just stand by looking at the problem and not do anything about it you are worse than the person who caused the problem."

– 8th grade student, Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Washington, D.C.
 On-site Audience Member

The Greensboro Lunch Counter on display in the museum
The Greensboro Lunch Counter on display in the museum

"We were surprised that some older white people supported the sit-in and how young the protesters were. We learned that not all African Americans supported the Greensboro Four. The best part of this was the opportunity to interact with real figures from history."

– 8th Graders from the Susquenita Middle School History Club, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Webcast Viewers

If you missed the Youth Town Hall you can view an archived version and a wide variety of multimedia resources about the Greensboro Sit-in on our Stories of Freedom and Justice page.

Carrie Kotcho is the education technologist at the National Museum of American History. Learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, including our Freedom Summer project and more Stories of Freedom and Justice.