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The Woolworth lunch protest

When a small group of young African American students took their seats at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s, in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the start of February in 1960, they knew they would get a reaction. And sure enough, moments later, they were denied service and asked to move to an area to another part of the restaurant.

Their refusal to move ignited a wave of similar ‘sit in’ protests across the South. While many were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, these actions made an immediate and lasting impact, forcing Woolworth’s and others to change their segregationist policies.

The Greensboro Four, as they quickly became know, were Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil and studied at the from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. They had been inspired to take action after the horrific murder of Emmett Till, a young African American child who had allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi, and influenced by the growing movement of non-violent civil disobedience that was sweeping the civil rights movement.

Their protest was well-planned. As the four sat down and refused to move, a supporting white businessman called the local media, who quickly arrived to cover the stand-off.

The Greensboro Four stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges. Before long, over 300 students were crammed in to the Woolworth store and eventually the company caved and integrated its lunch counter.

The protests quickly spread, with similar actions taking place in 55 cities across 13 states over the next two months, with numerous other food outlets forced to change their segregationist dining. More importantly, the sit-in protests helped propel the non-violent Civil Rights Movement into the national consciousness, which in turn inspired others to take action.