Fifty-five years ago today, four young men from the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked into a Woolworth five-and-dime to have lunch.
The men, later known as the Greensboro Four, went to Woolworth's bought toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter with no problems. But then they sat at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee; they were refused service.
Franklin McCain was one of the young men — the other being Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond — who sat down that day; he remembers the anxiety he felt when he went into the store and then the elation he felt after taking a seat:
"I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet. It's a feeling that I don't think that I'll ever be able to have again. It's the kind of thing that people pray for ... and wish for all their lives and never experience it. And I felt as though I wouldn't have been cheated out of life had that been the end of my life at that second or that moment."
And what happened was that she finished her doughnut, drank her coffee, and got up to leave. She walked down the aisle, walking behind McCain and his friends and then she stopped. She rested her hands on their shoulders and said:
"Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago."
And then she left; store manager Clarence Harris then asked the men to leave, but they refused, and sat at the counter until the store closed that night.
The next day, more than twenty black students — recruited from other campus groups — went into Woolworth’s and sat at the counter. White customers heckled them, spat on them, called them names, pushed them, hit them, but the students sat in silence, reading and studying. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service.
On the third day, over 60 people came to the Woolworth store; a statement from Woolworth national headquarters said the company would "abide by local custom" and maintain its segregated policy.
And so on the fourth day more than 300 people took part, and the protest grew so large that organizers spread the sit-in to include the lunch counter at Greensboro's Kress store.
A week later and there were similar protests in other town in North Carolina, as well as in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.
As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro and students began a far-reaching boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters; sales at those stores dropped by a third, leading the stores' owners to abandon their segregation policies.
On Monday, July 25, 1960, after nearly $200,000 in losses due to the demonstrations, Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store manager Clarence Harris asked 3 black employees to change out of work clothes into street clothes and order a meal at the counter.
They were the first black people ever served at the store's lunch counter, though the event received little publicity. Soon, that entire Woolworth was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike, although Woolworth lunch counters in other Tennessee cities, such as Jackson, continued to be segregated until around 1965.
Fifty-five years ago today.
It was a milestone, a step in the march toward Civil Rights, and it all began when four young black men sat down for a cup of coffee.
Things can change; all we need is a movement.