Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins

I was researching significant events in the civil rights struggle in USA recently and came across the book ‘Lunch at the 5 and 10’ by Miles Wolff.  It was written in 1970 as a history of an event that took place ten years earlier.


My version was updated in 1990 so was able to follow up the story with accounts of post- sit in lives of the four young men who made such a difference.  Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jnr and David Richmond walked into the Woolworth’s shop in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960 and sat down at the lunch counter.

They were refused service because only white people could be served at the counter.  The simple act of sitting at the counter until the end of the day made all the difference as it started a movement of sit ins that spread across the south.

In his book, Miles Wolff a journalist from Greensboro writes about the effect of this demonstration on the community.  He tells of the effect on the Woolworth manager, the Mayor and the President of the University the young men attended.  There were other civil rights activities taking place and many were organised by groups such as the NAACP.  Yet this action was started by young people.  As Wolff writes, they were young men who wanted to do more than just complain about injustice.  Too many people, including their own parents’ generation, accepted the status quo rather than fighting against it.


In the background of all this is a surprising figure called Ralph Johns.  He was not black but he saw segregation as anti- Christian and unjust.  He had been trying to start demonstrations against ‘whites only’ counters for a few years, asking the mainly black customers at his shop to hold a sit in.  He was ready with money to bail them out, if arrested.  Yet he knew that the struggle had to be led by the black students and not him so his role remained in the background.

It is a fascinating book.  Wolff concludes that, in the end, it was money that made a difference.  The demonstrations affected profits for all the shops refusing to serve black people and this, above all else, forced companies to change their policies.

‘Lunch at the 5 and 10’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


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