Four Students, One Lunch Counter:
How the Greensboro Sit-Ins Sparked a Revolution

February 18, 2016

statue of the A&T Four at A&T University

A statue of the A&T Four on the North Carolina A&T State University campus. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few months ago, a group of Ben & Jerry’s staff traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, one of the birth places of the civil rights movement. While there, we were lucky enough to hear retellings of the important moments that built this movement for justice and equality. One particular incident stood out as a critical event that galvanized the movement across the country: the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins.

This historic moment 56 years ago became much more than just a story to us; it came alive as we realized how this courageous act by four students sparked a ground-breaking movement. It’s the type of commitment, action, resistance, bravery and fortitude that we admire so much—not just in the past, but also today as resolute people around the world continue to push for progress. Let us tell you the story …

Sitting for a Change

The protest started small. In February of 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC – David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil – courageously sat down at the whites-only segregated lunch counter in the Woolworth’s department store and each ordered a cup of coffee. When they were denied service, they refused to move until the lunch counter closed that evening. The next day, and for days after that, the students came back and asked to be served again, bringing other students with them and refusing to leave. Peacefully and patiently, the sit-in protest continued until July, when Woolworth’s announced its lunch counter would no longer be segregated.

The Ripple Effect

Many of us learned about the Greensboro sit-ins in history class, but few of us fully understood how they sparked dozens of similar protests in cities across the country, from nearby Raleigh and Charlotte to Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and even Jackson, Mississippi. Historians estimate as many as 70,000 people took part in sit-in protests. Ultimately, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in all public accommodations – a total vindication of the courage shown by the A&T Four.

Our Time in North Carolina Inspires Us About the Future

We didn’t meet the A&T Four on our trip – only three of whom are still alive – but we did spend time reflecting on the statue on the campus of North Carolina A&T University that honors these four young men, the way they looked on that February night as they left the Woolworth’s. And we visited the original lunch counter, still intact, now part of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

These touchstones of the past were powerful to visit. But our company’s learning journey has made clear to us that our country’s struggle for racial equity is not a history lesson locked in the past. On the shoulders of many giants we have come far, but we still have far to go.

The Struggle is Not Behind Us

Perhaps equally inspiring was the time we spent with pioneers in the modern day civil rights movement in Greensboro. At the Beloved Community Center, we met with organizers, local government officials, church leaders and ordinary citizens who are working together on today’s toughest challenges related to racial equity:

  • Securing voting rights for people of color who still face undue barriers to the ballot.
  • Creating equality in educational opportunity for all students.
  • Creating economic development in communities of color that have suffered for decades, if not centuries, from discrimination.

And on and on.

We are grateful for the opportunity of Black History Month to reflect on the contributions of so many great black Americans from our past, like the A&T Four. In their time, they found the courage to confront racial injustice and to transform it. They made our country better and lifted us closer to our own ideals.

In our time, will we?