While my fam was in Greensboro, NC for our daughter’s graduation, we visited the F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown at the corner of Elm and February One streets where we could order a complete turkey dinner for 65¢ or a slice of apple pie for 15¢.
The store closed for business in 1993, but the significance of that particular diner was that on Feb. 1, 1960, four, 17-year-old college freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University began the first peaceful, sit-in protest against segregation, a movement that eventually swept the nation.
Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond sat at the counter, marked for “Whites Only” and tried to order lunch. Refused access, they returned to the store again the next day and were again denied service.
Soon other students from other colleges joined them. Working in shifts, they continued their protest until the end of their school year. To keep the movement going over the summer, students from a local black high school joined the sit-in until late July, when the store manager finally agreed to serve black customers.
Today, that F.W. Woolworth store is home to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
As we toured the facility, we were reminded of the people who were the front line soldiers in the war against segregation and oppression. So many of them children. So many of them died, or were victims of violence and death threats.
In 1960, Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old New Orleans first-grader, was one of the first black children to attend an all-white elementary school. U.S Marshalls escorted her to class because of death threats against her and her family. She was SIX.
Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Chicago teen visiting his grandmother in Mississippi during the summer of 1955, was brutally murdered for allegedly talking to a white woman. His injuries from being beaten, blinded, shot, hung and drown, were so heinous, he was unrecognizable. When his mother was advised to have a closed-casket service, she refused. Instead, she said she wanted the world to see how vicious his death was.
Down one hallway of the museum, there was a wall of mug shots, more than 1,200 random photos of people arrested for protesting against segregation – white, black, men, women, young, old – all charged with various crimes because they believed that “all men were created equal.”
Walking through the center, with my children, was a very emotional experience. I was horrified, embarrassed, shamed, guilt-ridden, and moved to tears.
I thought of the mother’s of these early activists. I thought of the mixture of numbing fear, crushing grief, and overwhelming pride they must have felt. I could not bear losing one of my children through that sort of senseless violence. I don’t know how these mothers survived their heartbreak.
I’m not a perfect parent, but I have tried to raise my children without prejudice. I’ve tried to instill in them the belief that we are all one world, one people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
I have great hope and expectations for their generation. That through them, we can finally get this right. That the only time they will hear about violations of civil rights is while taking a tour at a historic museum.