It was exactly 50 years ago – a lifetime for some – that four black college students sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C and asked to be served.
At the time, in February of 1960, Woolworth’s and many other privately-owned businesses in the South refused to serve blacks or required them to use separate facilities than those used by whites.
Segregation in the South wasn’t just practiced privately – it was part of a system called Jim Crow that involved every public institution in the South. Jim Crow segregation kept blacks from owning land, gaining fair employment and earning a fair wage, receiving a fair trial, having access to a quality education, voting, holding any political office or having any political power whatsoever.
The protest by students at North Carolina A&T marked one of the first skirmishes of the Civil Rights Movement – both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock school integration struggle preceded it.
But the lunch counter protests, organized by leaders of what later became the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, soon spread across the South, eventually involving 70,000 students. At that time, just about every little Southern town had a Woolworth counter that wouldn’t serve blacks – so the drugstore chain was a logical one for protesters to target in their quest to force businesses to accommodate all people, without regard to race.
There were many other battles to come – Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, Memphis – in which black and white people marched together in mass protests to demand civil rights for all, in both private and public accommodations. Thousands of protesters were threatened or jailed, and dozens of them were killed.
In the end, nothing but mass movements, murders and federal legislation was able to utterly destroy the Southern way of life under Jim Crow and dislodge an entrenched system of racism that permeated every level of society.
The Civil Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, was designed to address and dismantle each level of institutional racism.
Each of its ten titles addresses a discrete area:
- Title I bars the unequal application of voter registration requirements.
- Title II outlaws discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce.
- Title III prohibits state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, gender or ethnicity.
- Title IV encouraged the desegregation of public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce it.
- Title V expanded the Civil Rights Commission established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957.
- Title VI prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding.
- Title VII prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin, or because of a person’s association with another person due to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin – or because of a person’s interracial association with another, such as by an interracial marriage.
- Title VIII requires compilation of voter registration and voting data in geographic areas specified by the Commission on Civil Rights.
- Title IX made it easier to move civil rights cases away from state courts with segregationist judges and all white juries to federal courts, to ensure fair trials
- Title X established the Community Relations Service, which is tasked with assisting in community disputes involving claims of discrimination.
The Civil Rights Act has become part of the legal fabric of American life – and protecting and cherishing the rights contained in it is key to the beliefs and values that the Center for Civic Policy holds.
Why does the Center for Civic Policy think it’s so important for Americans to continue to safeguard the rights of all?
There’s a lot to say – so to put it succinctly, maybe we can borrow the words of Franklin McCain, who, back in 1960, was the leader of the Greensboro protest that galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the four “first-dayers” who sat at the counter on Feb. 1, 1960.
In 1995, a North Carolina newspaper asked McCain if he was apprehensive that day, when he left his dorm room knowing he was headed to that Woolworth’s lunch counter.
“I didn’t think about whether I was ever coming back. That really didn’t matter,” McCain said. “Because life the way it was, wasn’t worth living.”