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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

Saving the site of a counter revolution

Birthplace of the civil rights sit-in movement, a now-shuttered Woolworth store, will become a museum.

November 14, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the far corner of a vacant store, the fine dust of history has settled over the most famous lunch counter in America. The vinyl-covered stools are empty, the signboard touting the day's special--meatloaf dinner, 55 cents--is gone, the kitchen is cold.

But once this F.W. Woolworth store on South Elm Street provided the setting for a drama so steeped in poignancy and portent that it reverberates still. It was here on Feb. 1, 1960, that Franklin McCain and three other 18-year-old freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at the whites-only counter, asked to be served and touched off a decade of civil rights protest.

For McCain, now 54 and a sales manager for a Charlotte industrial firm, that day would provide him with a sense of fulfillment and elation that has never been equaled. "Not even my marriage or the birth of my children could top that feeling," he says. "It was a sense of total liberation. I had been to the mountaintop."

For the rest of the nation, the actions of four young black men in the heart of the segregated South signaled a new phase of a revolutionary social upheaval. Within two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states. A year later, student-led demonstrations resulted in desegregation of public facilities in more than 100 towns.

"The Greensboro sit-ins are a watershed in the history of America," says Duke University history professor William H. Chafe, author of a book on the civil rights struggle. "Although this was a very conservative action, it served to unleash the pent-up forces seeking change."

Now, three years after Woolworth Co. closed the Greensboro store, the building has been purchased by a local nonprofit group with plans to turn it into an international civil rights center and museum. Greensboro City Councilman Earl Jones, a co-founder of Sit-In Movement Inc., says about $1.5 million has been raised of an estimated $9 million needed to renovate the building to include classrooms, an auditorium and exhibits of civil rights actions from around the world.

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Along with commemorating the 1960 sit-in, the museum would help to revitalize Greensboro's faded downtown, says Jones, by attracting up to 250,000 out-of-town visitors to the city each year.

For Greensboro, a city of 185,000 residents and five colleges, a civil rights museum is seen by some civic leaders as a means to burnish the city's reputation as a model of the New South, which during the 1950s and 1960s remained largely free of the violence that scarred Birmingham, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark., and other towns during the push to end segregationist Jim Crow practices.

At the same time, however, a shrine to that 1960 sit-in would also remind the city of what Chafe calls "the paradox of politeness and racism that made Greensboro a logical place for this expression of protest."

"The sit-in was not greeted with violence, and the city provided the social space for it to occur," says Chafe. "But at the same time, the city used a facade of tolerance and civility to hide enormous patterns of racial and economic inequality."

For the four friends who dared stage the sit-in that cold February day, the event has shaped their lives. Jibreel Khazam--then known as Ezell Blair Jr.--became a teacher and counselor, and now lives in New Bedford, Mass. He was so nervous before the sit-in, he says, that he developed a chronic case of psoriasis. But, he adds, "it also allowed me to be a small part of a big wheel in human development. It humbled me."

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Joseph McNeil, a district manager with the Federal Aviation Administration, lives on Long Island, N.Y, and is a general in the Air Force Reserve. Says McNeil: "Why me? When asked that, I say, 'Why not me?' Segregation impacted our lives on a daily basis. We were instruments in making something happen."

David Richmond, a classmate of Khazam and McCain at Greensboro's Dudley High School and a three-sport star there, worked at various jobs in Greensboro before succumbing to cancer in 1990.

Woolworth's and two other downtown stores finally began to allow black patrons to sit down and eat after five months of steady protest. And that victory served as a model for a decade of nonviolent protest in which students in particular, Chafe writes in "Civilities and Civil Rights," realized the power of the sit-in to express "the dissatisfaction and anger of the black community toward white indifference."

Most of the lunch counter itself remains intact, although pieces of it--along with 12 of the original 64 stools--have been removed for use in permanent displays at the Greensboro Historical Museum, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh and the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

A temporary lunch counter exhibit was set up last summer in Atlanta during the Olympic Games.

For McCain, the sit-in represents "a message of hope, and also a constant reminder of what we can do as a people. It's old-fashioned, but we can show love for each other.

"What happened in Greensboro was an event for the world."

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