William H. Chafe: A Protest That Changed History





[William H. Chafe teaches history at Duke University and is the author of “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.”]

Fifty years ago tomorrow, four black freshmen at A and T College in Greensboro, N.C., helped change American history. They walked into the Woolworth’s department store, purchased school supplies and toothpaste, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve Negroes,” they were told. “But you served us at the other counters,” they responded.

Refusing to leave, they opened their school books and started to study....

The Greensboro sit-ins — a simple act of dramatizing the moral absurdity of segregation — led, over the next five years, to the dismantling of Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the re-enfranchisement of black citizens with the Voting Rights Act of 1965....

Some have described the sit-in movement as akin to an “immaculate conception,” a sudden, nearly total reversal of decades of accommodation and subservience by a new generation freed from the constraints of the past.

In truth, blacks had been fighting Jim Crow for decades, and nowhere did resistance exist more vigorously than in Greensboro. There, in 1943, Ella Baker formed the NAACP Youth Group, which many of the sit-in demonstrators joined in the ’50s to talk about carrying forward the struggle. At youth group meetings, the students learned about Dr. David Jones, the president of Bennett, Greensboro’s all-black women’s college, who insisted on hiring desegregated construction crews to build new dormitories and who invited Eleanor Roosevelt, as first lady, to speak to a black and white audience on his campus....

Nowhere were the parallels stronger than with the apartheid regime of South Africa. There, too, people like Chief Albert Lithuli and lawyer Nelson Mandela stood up to protest, putting their lives on the line....

Fifty years ago in Greensboro, as in South Africa, protesters shaped history by using the foundations of resistance that they had inherited.

Today, citizens of Tehran, Harare and elsewhere carry forward that tradition, hoping “their diverse acts of courage” can also change history.

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