By Frank Ramirez
According to the Christian folk song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” There were certainly many bright lights shining in the darkness during the epic Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The spark lit by four young college students who started the famous sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960, set off a chain reaction across the country. Directly emulating Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of nonviolence, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil each took a seat at the segregated lunch counter and asked to be served a cup of coffee.
They were refused, so they peacefully sat at the counter until closing. In the weeks and months that followed, other students joined them, taking turns to ensure that their peaceful protest continued. When the college term ended, local high school students and others helped continue the protest until Woolworth’s and other businesses integrated their services.
In the meantime, the movement spread by word of mouth and through newspaper reports, until there were nonviolent sit-ins conducted at lunch counters across the country. In some instances the nonviolent efforts were met with violence, but in the long run the movement was successful.
That Greensboro lunch counter is preserved in its original position as one of the major exhibits at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which is located in the Woolworth’s building. The museum offers a guided tour that allows visitors to see photographs and artifacts illustrating the larger struggle for Civil Rights. Not a few of the exhibits are disturbing, including a gallery of shame in which photographs of lynchings are paired with photographs of celebrating white mobs who are not at all ashamed at being present and photographed. There are many exhibits that demonstrate how racism and prejudice reigned in American society, as well as the stories of many African-Americans who transcended that racism.
The museum is a reminder that casual racism–embedded in stereotypes, jokes, and attitudes still held by many people in our society, and violent racism–typified by the nine murders at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last year, are very much alive in our world. A visit to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, only a few minutes’ drive from the Koury Convention Center where the 2016 Annual Conference met, was an important reminder of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and how far there is still to go.
The 2016 Annual Conference News Team includes: writers Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Karen Garrett, Tyler Roebuck, Monica McFadden; photographers Glenn Riegel, Regina Holmes, Keith Hollenberg, Donna Parcell, Laura Brown; Conference Journal editor Eddie Edmonds; web manager Jan Fischer Bachman; web staff Russ Otto; editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.