Local colleges remember sit-ins on 40th anniversary
Saturday, April 26, 1997
Joseph McNeill stood at the podium with his hands in the pockets of his dark suit, exuding a quiet confidence. Jibreel Khazan gestured expansively, his dreadlocks and earring swinging as he broke into a Bob Marley song. Franklin McCain spoke as if he were delivering a sermon. Though they are clearly very different people, these three men are often spoken of as if they were one. They are the surviving members of the Greensboro Four, the N.C. A&T freshmen who sat at a whites-only Woolworth's counter 40 years ago and began a movement that changed law and custom across the American South.
"We didn't want to set the world on fire," Khazan said. "We just wanted to eat."
The fourth member of the group, David Richmond, died in 1990, 10 months after the 30th anniversary of the sit-ins.
Tuesday, A&T, Bennett College and UNCG hosted events to mark the 40th anniversary. Each school's students played a role in the sit-ins. The day's events aimed to let today's students understand what their predecessors did and how it connects to their lives.
A&T hosted the surviving members of the Greensboro Four. UNCG showed a student-made documentary about the UNCG students who participated in the sit-ins and held a discussion afterward. Bennett College hosted a forum that featured William Chafe, author of "Civilities and Civil Rights: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina."
The college events began with a breakfast at A&T where the survivors and two of David Richmond's children talked about the sit-ins, the movement they started and the work that remains.
McNeill told a crowd at A&T's Williams Cafeteria that the wonder isn't that the students did what they did in 1960, the wonder is that someone hadn't done it sooner.
During the sit-ins, he said, an old white woman sat at the Woolworth's counter beside McCain.
"I'm disappointed in you boys," the woman said.
"M'am?" McCain said.
"I'm disappointed in you boys because it took so long for you to do this," she said.
McCain told the A&T crowd the movement's work isn't done. "There is a lion loose in the streets today," he said, "a vicious lion. ... That lion is all those groups who would turn back the clock."
McCain listed hate groups, conservative politicians and black leaders who have benefited from affirmative action and now speak out against it. Those people, he said, are the lion that's loose in the streets. Celebrating the sit-ins is fine, he said, but it's not enough.
"Your challenge," he said, "is to not just let this day become nostalgia."
Hours after A&T celebrated the four Aggie freshmen who began the movement, UNCG honored three sit-in participants who aren't as well-known: Ann Dearsley, Jeannie Seaman and Marilynn Lott. They were Woman's College students, and the first white people to join the sit-ins.
Claudette Burroughs-White, now a member of the Greensboro City Council, was a Woman's College student in 1960. She was the only black Women's College student to participate in the sit-ins.
In the film, Dearsley said she and the other white W.C. students who joined the sit-ins did it "rather naively and not dreaming of the ramifications. It just seemed like the logical thing to do."
What she called "the logical thing" Chafe called one of those moments that "can transform what has been and what will be."
Chafe said that when he first came to Greensboro in the 1970s, he discovered that, despite the city's reputation for progressive race relations, white leaders couldn't tell him who Greensboro's black leaders were.
Chafe stood in the pulpit in Bennett College's Pfeiffer Chapel where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. Khazan said he couldn't get into the chapel when King spoke, but he and McCain were there Tuesday evening.
Khazan told the crowd at A&T that the Greensboro Four spent a lot of time before Feb. 1, 1960, talking about people who hadn't acted to defeat segregation. Then they asked themselves, he said, "Were we man enough, were we bad enough - for all our talk - to take some action?"
McNeill said they could act "because we had something that seems elusive now: faith."
"The challenge today," said David Richmond Jr., son of the deceased member of the Greensboro Four, "is to trust in the Lord. He was there that day. There was a fifth person there walking ahead of them."