The Greensboro sit-ins were a series of nonviolent protests in February to July 1960, primarily in the Woolworth store—now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum—in Greensboro, North Carolina, which led to the F. W. Woolworth Company department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States. While not the first sit-in of the civil rights movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action, and also the best-known sit-ins of the civil rights movement. They are considered a catalyst to the subsequent sit-in movement, in which 70,000 people participated. This sit-in was a contributing factor in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In August 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized the Alexandria Library sit-in in Virginia (now the Alexandria Black History Museum). In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, as they did in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. The Dockum Drug Store sit-in in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, was successful in ending segregation at every Dockum Drug Store in Kansas and a sit-in in Oklahoma City the same year led the Katz Drug Stores to end its segregation policy.
The Greensboro Four (as they would soon be known) were Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, all young black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in their freshman year who often met in their dorm rooms to discuss what they could do to stand against segregation. They were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and his practice of nonviolent protest, and specifically wanted to change the segregational policies of F. W. Woolworth Company in Greensboro, North Carolina. During Christmas vacation of 1959, McNeil attempted to buy a hot dog at the Greensboro Greyhound Lines bus station, but was refused service. Shortly thereafter, the four men decided that it was time to take action against segregation. They came up with a simple plan: they would occupy seats at the local F. W. Woolworth Company store, ask to be served, and when they were inevitably denied service, they would not leave. They would repeat this process every day for as long as it would take. Their goal was to attract widespread media attention to the issue, forcing Woolworth to implement desegregation.
On February 1, 1960, at 4:30 pm ET, the four sat down at the 66-seat L-shaped stainless steel lunch counter inside the F. W. Woolworth Company store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. The men, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, who would become known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, had purchased toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter at the store with no problems, but were then refused service at the store’s lunch counter when they each asked for a cup of coffee, a donut with cream on the side. According to a witness, a white waitress told the boys “We don’t serve Negroes here”. Blair responded that he was just served 2 feet away, to which the waitress replied “Negroes eat at the other end”. An African-American girl who was cleaning behind the counter called them “stupid, ignorant, rabble-rousers, troublemakers”. Another African-American told them, “You’re just hurting race relations by sitting there”. However, an elderly white woman told them, “I am just so proud of you. My only regret is that you didn’t do this ten or fifteen years ago”. Store manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave, and, when they would not budge, called his supervisor, who told him, “They’ll soon give up, leave and be forgotten”. Harris allowed the students to stay and did not call police to evict them. The four freshmen stayed until the store closed that night, and then went back to the North Carolina A&T University campus, where they recruited more students to join them the next morning.
The next day, on February 2, 1960, more than twenty black students (including four women), recruited from other campus groups, joined the sit-in. This group sat with school work to stay busy from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The group was again refused service, and were harassed by the white customers at the Woolworth store. However, the sit-ins made local news on the second day, with reporters, a TV cameraman and police officers present throughout the day. Back on campus that night, the Student Executive Committee for Justice was organized, and the committee sent a letter asking the president of F.W. Woolworth to “take a firm stand to eliminate discrimination.” Upon hearing of the sit-ins, the president of the college, Warmoth T. Gibbs, remarked that Woolworth’s “did not have the reputation for fine food”.