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A prominent part of the history of the United States is understanding the fight for personal freedom through civil rights. The bravery of those who have stepped up to defend their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have helped pave the way to gaining rights and equality. I have always been fascinated and enjoyed learning about the brave people who stood up and fought for their freedoms, even knowing the consequences could be severe. I chose to tour the International Civil Rights Museum located in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. The events that took place in the Woolworths Diner in downtown Greensboro shaped civil rights movements in North Carolina, but also created a movement all over the United States. The brave four men who sat at the counter at Woolworth’s changed not only the course of North Carolinas history, but the history of the United States in the fight for civil rights.
On February 1st, 1960, four college African-American college students took a stand for civil rights by siting at a popular retail store lunch counter in downtown Greensboro.
The sit-in of these four men began a wave of sit-ins across the south and specifically in North Carolina, sit-ins popped up over Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Durham (Hauman, 2010). On the night of January 31st, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond, gathered in their freshman dorm room for “Bull Sessions” they had every night. Over the Christmas break, Joseph McNeil, was coming back to N.C. A&T after spending time at home in New York over the holiday break. McNeil was denied service at a Greyhound bus station in Greensboro, after this the three men decided it was time to take action, no matter the consequences (“THE GREENSBORO CHRONOLOGY.”). The next day they sat at the lunch counter at Woolworths, a white only counter, where they simply asked for a cup of coffee and were refused service. Police arrive to the scene but are unable to take action upon the students due to the lack of provision (Wright.) Interviews with the men who bravely sat down revealed the terror they were in as they sat down, knowing they could be arrested, McNeil in his interview reveals his fear of going to jail, whether it be for one day, one week, or even one year (Jones, 2004).
Also, interviews with McNeil reveal an interaction between him and an older white lady. In his interview, he reveals she put her hand on his shoulder and told him, “Boys I am so proud of you. I only regret that you did not do this ten years ago.”(Cherry, M.) He reveals how surprised he was about this interaction, but those kind words from an unlikely stranger were, and still are, an inspiration. Word of the Sit-ins traveled fast, many joined the movement and joined in in the sit-ins, other criticized the movement and believed there should be more done to stop the sit-ins. Newspapers were filled with articles of the sit-ins and the impacts these sit-ins had. According to an article written by Marvin Sykes in a local newspaper, he discussed how four men sat at the counter while twenty others stood with them and how the movement was expecting to double the next day. The article also reveals that when asked about the sit-ins the managers of Woolworths, Clarence Harris, had no comment (Sykes, 1960). The four men stood up to making a difference by sitting down at a counter, creating a movement far larger than they though capable.
In 1993, the Guilford County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston and Greensboro City Councilman Earl F. Jones founded Sit-In Movement, Inc., this was a non-profit organization set up to help raise funds to purchase the Woolworth building to preserve the building in honor of the Greensboro four (Fransinca, 2005). In 2001, this movement partnered with North Carolina A&T State University to develop the International Civil Rights Museum (February One). Annual banquets are held that help support and sustain the operation of the museum. The International Museum of Civil Rights should be considered important and valuable to all North Carolinians. The actions of these four men and their story was a spark that created a fire for the movement of civil rights. These everyday African America college students sitting down at a white only counter changed course of history.
This was not the end for the push of equal rights, but it is the beginning of a story of the push for civil rights in North Carolina. This sit-in pulled more and more students from the University of A&T and even students from Bennett College. On the 42nd anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, A&T placed a statue depicting the four men in front of the Dudley memorial center. The three men were were still alive for its unveiling hope it forever stands as a symbol change can happen (“N.C. A&T Remembers ‘Greensboro Four’ with New Statue”, 2002). Also, this museum focuses on many movements of civil rights that are part of the domino effect during the civil rights time period. The Woolworths diner still houses the section at which the four men sat, it has not been moved from its original settings. In our tour, our guide was very proud to announce that is the original counter and the civil rights museum is the only place that houses the original counter.
I think the International Civil Rights Museum did an excellent job of telling the story of Civil Rights through the Greensboro Four. I was assigned with a group leader, Miss Joan, who took us around the museum, although this museum is in honor of the “Greensboro Four” it took you through the Jim Crow era and the segregation that was present during this time. The museum discussed large court cases like the Fredrick Scott case and Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. The museum focused on integration of the school systems and the resistance that came with integration. The museum showed signs that said things like “Whites Only,” “Colored people not allowed,” and “Whites Bathroom Only.” This museum did an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of someone in this time, our speaker gave us the facts and allowed us time to read different quotes on the wall to understand and read quotes to gain empathy. Also there was a variety of the information was presented, Miss Joan highlighted important pictures and artifacts as we toured through, there were video throughout the tour, and different interactive elements.
The museum described events like Ruby Bridges, where a young six-year-old African-American was integrated into a Southern School, where she had to be escorted into a classroom by US Marshals to avoid getting mobbed by violent crowds. The museum discussed the Kuhn Klux Klan, and the terror they created in this time. We walked into a room where they had a complete outfit of a member of the Klan. We looked at propaganda of the Klan and the push to segregate African-Americans. Our speaker discussed Lynching and how the Klan promoted this. Martin Luther King and his march for civil rights was discussed. It was in fact, because of Kings non-violent protest, the Greensboro Four was inspired to host their own sit-ins. One of the most eye-opening, moving parts of the museum, was what our speaker described as the room that was the road through hell.
This roomed housed the darkest stories of civil rights. Stories of the 16th street Baptist Church bombing, where members of the Klan put sticks of dynamite in a church which ultimately took the life of four young African-American girls. The story of Emmitt Till was one of the stories that stuck out the most to me. Emmitt Till was a fourteen-year-old African American who was accused of whistling at a white women in a grocery store. Days later the husband and half-brother of the woman in the grocery store kidnapped Till, beat him, and shot him to death, then dumped his body in a river. Both men were tried for the murder, but the jury of all white, all male acquitted him. His mother refused to cover up what they had done to her son, so she held an open casket funeral so everyone had to face it. In the museum, there were images of young Emmitt laying in his casket. It was unreal to believe this is a reality, this story really took place in America.
I chose to go to the International Civil Rights Museum for many reasons. First off, I am very interested in our country’s fight for equality for all. Throughout out past we overcame many obstacles, and the people who help us move toward equality were everyday people who fought for future generations. The Greensboro four is a phenomenal example of everyday people fighting for a change and I was amazed by the bravery these four men had. Also, I am a native of Randolph County, which is the neighboring county of Guilford County, where this sit-in took place. It was cool to see the beginning of such a large movement start in my own hometown. Lastly, the standards for eighth grade Social Studies is focused on North Carolina and its history. A large unit of these standards focus on civil rights as a whole, and a focus in movements in North Carolina. As a future educator, I think it is vital to fully know the content of these standards and experience history firsthand. Touring the International Civil Rights Museum gave me a deeper understanding of this specific content, more understanding of the Jim Crowe era, to better teach my students in the future. Although I was required to attend a historical site for this class, I gained far more knowledge and content that will benefit me far more than just in this specific class.
The International Civil Rights museum did an excellent job of presenting the history. The civil rights museum went through the struggle for equal rights from all, covering far more than just movement that took place at Woolworths. The museum covered life in the Jim Crow era and the great movements from leaders like the Greensboro four and Martin Luther King JR. This cite wanted to show was life was like and really give you the experience of what It was like to live through this time and actual props from the time to help put the viewer in the shoes of African-American during this time. The museum also noted that even though we have moved forward regarding many civil rights issues, we still have more to go. At the very end of the museum, we were taken to a room that had many civil rights activists pictured all over the wall with several empty spots. Our tour guide told us the spots are for everyone in the room to fill, because everyday people like us who are the ones who change the world. She challenged us to look at the world around us and be advocates for change. This exhibit not only shows the ugly past and how far we have come, but challenges you to look at the world around you and advocate for equal rights, and equality for all.
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