Thoughts at a lunch counter


Many have commented on the power of our Join the Student Sit-Ins program. One audience member wrote to us about the memories the sit-ins program evoked.

This play, about the 1960 Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In, really moved me.
Brave young men and women stood up for their rights.
They did it by sitting down at a Woolworth lunch counter and asking to buy their lunch.
They were African Americans sitting at a "whites only" lunch counter.
Because of that, they did not get what they ordered.
Their plates were heaped with scorn, abuse, and insults.
Their milk shakes were poured on their heads, not in their glasses.
They got threatened with bombing, not thanked for their patronage.

But, things have changed, and continued to change.
It has been little by little, forced by people who showed the courage and strenght of character to NOT strike back at disrespect, insults, and beatings. 

I was 11, like my daughter is now, when Reverend King led the March on Washington.
12 when the Civil Rights Act was passed.
17 when some of my friends were shot while peacefully protesting. Four died that day.
18 when I videotaped my professors, friends, and roommates being arrested here in D.C.
I wanted to join them, to be arrested for what I believed, but I was afraid. And, I was the cameraman. We wanted a record of the protest and their arrest, if only for the trial.

I saw no need to kill or be killed in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali spoke for me when he said, "No Vietnamese ever called me a n****."

At 22, I worked in a high school that had 2,500 students. Every one of those students was African American. The librarian started talking to me about, "...since integration, things have changed..." I asked, "Integration? When will that be?" 
That same year, I went to a local restaurant for lunch with an African American teacher in a "white" neighborhood. They served us—because it was the law, because of those brave men and women.

Then, I started thinking about MY parents.
When my father and mother were born, women were not allowed to vote.
When my mother was 13, the Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and the children of American citizens of Chinese ancestry.

When my grandfathers were born, slavery was legal in the United States. 
Many of these slaves were the illegitimate sons and daughters of their "owners" and overseers.
They bought, sold, and abused their own children as readily as their dogs or chickens—it was their legal right.

When I was 15, the law in the Commonwealth of Virginia would have allowed young men my age to marry any woman they chose—as long as the woman was pregnant, they had their parents' signature, and the woman was white. Not until December 18, 2009, did the mayor of the District of Columbia sign a law making it legal for any two people who are so moved to marry each other.

My family came here from Germany seeking a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I only hope that can happen.
That we can create a world where "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" is respected.

I hope my daughter is ready to carry on the work.

By Glen Grabenstetter, member of the studio audience in the sit-ins program videoTo attend this program at the museum, see our calendar.