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This is the fifteenth issue of Voices From the Past. My goal for each issue is to publish some highlights of one of my historical stories as well as an update on my activities. Please feel free to forward this e-newsletter to anyone you think might be interested.
Below is a shortened version of a new story of mine.
Four Young Men Who Made a Difference
These four young men - Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, Jr. – met during their freshmen year in college and made a huge difference in this country.
First semester, the four talked a lot about doing something their parents and grandparents had never done. Franklin McCain later said, “It was how Joseph McNeil got treated as he rode buses from New York back to school that sparked our determination to do something. When McNeil crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, he got treated worse and worse the farther south he went.
On the night of Jan. 31, 1960, I said,‘I’m tired of talking about it. Let’s just do it.’
McNeil said,‘Let’s do it tomorrow.’ He said it at 1 am. All 4 of us agreed to do it and then went to bed.
I didn’t sleep a lot that night. I wasn’t really afraid, it was more anxiety. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought the worst thing that would happen to us is that we would have our heads split open with a nightstick and then all of us jailed. I fully expected to go to jail the next day.
On the next day, Feb. 1, we waited until we were done with classes. We chose Woolworth’s because it had different policies above and below the Mason-Dixon Line. Above the line, we could sit down at the lunch counter and be served. Below, we had to stand or be served elsewhere.
We went in the front door of Woolworth’s and bought some school supplies. Once we got to the store, there was no conversation between us. There was an eerie silence. We walked to the counter and took our seats. We just looked around casually. People were looking at us in total amazement. There must have been a dozen people at the counter and 40 people in the store.
Initially the white people serving at the counter ignored us. The third time they came past us, we asked for what we wanted and were told. “Go downstairs to be served.” Finally someone who was black, a bus boy who cleaned the counter, came by and said, “You know you have no business here. If you really wanted to be served, you could go downstairs and be served. It’s people like you who created ill will and misunderstanding between the races. You’re trouble makers.”
Shortly thereafter, something unexpected happened. A little old white lady, who must have been all of 75 or 80 years old, strolled down and said to us, “Well, boys, I am just so proud of you. My only regret is that you didn’t do this 10 or 15 years ago.” That simple little acknowledgment meant more to me that day than anything else. I got so much courage, I got so much pride, and such a good positive feeling from that little old lady. That really made the day for us.
We asked to see the manager. He told us, ‘It’s just custom.’ I told him, ‘Do you believe that it’s right and fair and just? It’s not what I believe.’ ‘It’s this store’s policy and I’m obligated to abide by the policy.’ ‘I think it’s wrong. It says something to your fellow human beings to treat them as second class citizens.’ We went back and forth for five minutes. He was quite nice. He wasn’t a bad guy at all.
A beat cop came in walking up and down the aisle, slapping his nightstick in his hand right behind us. He walked behind us twice. On the third time, I realized that he really didn’t know what to do. That probably gave us more strength than anything else. The other police were outside the door. The store was filling up with people. About 20 minutes after we had sat down, the manager announced, ‘The store was closing early.’ No one hassled us that day.
I walked out of that store feeling powerful.”
These 4 young men and the others who joined them were persistent and consistent – they created the first sustained sit-in in the South. Every day for six months, they came back to Woolworth’s and sat down at the lunch counter. They had no idea that within two months, sit-ins would be occurring in 54 cities in nine states.
After six months, on Monday, July 25, 1960, all of Woolworth’s lunch counters were integrated.
By a year and a half later, in August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in integration events, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests.
These sit-ins at "whites only" lunch counters inspired subsequent
kneel-ins at segregated churches,
sleep-ins at segregated motels,
swim-ins at segregated pools,
wade-ins at segregated beaches,
read-ins at segregated libraries,
play-ins at segregated parks and
watch-ins at segregated movies.
America would never be the same.
some more information about the Greensboro Four.
News about me
I have two upcoming free performances that will include the full version of the above story. I am pleased and honored to tell all these courageous stories.
Fri. February 17, 10:30 am, Friday Free for All, Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, Clifton Park, NY.
Mon. February 20, 7 pm, Harkness Building, Wesley Community, Clement St., Saratoga Springs, NY.
Black History Month: Stories Celebrating African Americans
Listen to storyteller Kate Dudding share the true stories of African Americans who strove to improve their lives, and often also improved the lives of many others. The Gee's Bend Quilters, Jackie Robinson, Wendell Smith, the Clinton 12, and Theresa Burroughs will be featured as well as others.
I am also preparing to record my third CD, Young People Who Made a Difference. Of course, the story of the Greensboro Four will be included on this CD.
Thanks for reading this issue. I’ll be sending you some more story highlights in a few months.
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Copyright 2012 by Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.