It was clear that no one was thinking about the significance of a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, NC when it was scheduled to be destroyed and turned into a parking lot.
Nor did anyone think that a lunch counter would be the site of a non-violent protest… or that those protests would change US History.
February 1, 1960
Inspired by Ghandi, MLK, and similar sit-in protests, four university students created a plan to pressure Woolworth’s into desegregating their stores. They would sit at the lunch counters and ask for service, refusing to leave once denied. Despite the abuses they endured, it was repeated daily, and as media attention spread it became a visible movement replicated across the South. Almost 6 months later the department store caved, and the Greensboro Four made their mark.
(^This summary doesn’t do it justice, so check out the full details and story.)
The International Civil Rights Museum
When news of the building’s scheduled destruction spread in 1993, people banded together to save the landmark, and on the 50th anniversary of the original sit-in the museum was opened.
The ICRM is a mix of physical history, theatrical story telling, and incredible displays. Tours begin with the history of racism in the US after the abolition of slavery, and continue with the gruesome injustices, racial crimes, and arbitrary legal practices in the time leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.
My visit to Greensboro was specifically to see it because of what it represents and how it’s designed. The Museum’s use of imagery is dynamic, its timeline-esque setup progressing seamlessly through each chapter, and their use of artifacts as displays is fresh. The preserved items are integrated as part of the experience, and there’s a lot of information to better understand the events that transpired in the 1960s.
One in particular was a segregated soda machine with two sides; the “whites only” side charged 5 cents, while the other side charged double. There was also a wall of mug shots displayed behind jail bars of many of the people arrested during protests. It stirred up a lot of emotion and questions.
The biggest draw is the main floor is where the lunch counter is preserved, complete with original signs and dishes and the very chairs used by the protesters. Video screens are in the counter windows and play out reenacted scenes, bringing to life the bravery of the protests. This is where it happened. An ordinary place.
There’s so much about this time that I was unaware of, and imagining what it must have been like floods me with the events of today, especially in light of those that would downplay the importance of the movement…or choose to ignore it ever happened, or that there ever was a problem.
The events that happened here are part of a bigger story, and even the most “insignificant” place can be the site of great impact. A lunch stool as a place to have your voice heard? It gives me chills. Who’s speaking up today, fighting against the wrong, changing the course of history?
The power of resistance works, no action too small or useless, even if it feels like no one is listening. Four college freshmen spoke out at a lunch counter and it became one of the most memorable moments in a movement, their actions ballooning into so much more…something we can all take to heart.
(Photos are not allowed inside. Exterior photos is my own, the rest are credited in the caption)