Monday, February 6, 2012
Black History Month - The Power of Youth
It’s hard to believe the distant blur that my freshman year in college has become… that a decade has passed… or that one of my roommates is turning 25 this year - again….
In old photos, and the fading scribbles in my Emerson quote journal, I catch glimpses of this quirky, shy, opinionated young woman finding herself on a campus far from home. I recall my determination to live according to Emerson:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
As a freshman my concerns were ample: balancing a heavy course load; making new friends; coping with the sobering transformation from BIG fish, small pond to small fish in VERY BIG pond. But, then I consider the courage of four college freshmen in North Carolina who sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960. In addition to the ‘average’ concerns and restlessness of youth, these young men took on racial inequality and social injustice, by taking a seat for what they knew was right.
Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and David Richmond would go down in history as the Greensboro Four. That morning though, they were just four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State – an all-black university in Greeensboro. Four black students who, in the time of sanctioned segregation, walked into a Woolworth’s department store, sat down at a counter reserved for white customers and ordered coffee.
There was to be no lunch, let alone coffee, that day. The managers refused them service and asked the young men to leave, but they sat until closing time. I imagined they went home that night with empty bellies, but with consciences filled with passion.
They would return the next day, and the next, each day bringing more student protesters - black and white alike – and increased attention from the press. The Greensboro sit-ins continued for five months, and inspired similar civil disobedience at lunch counters and stores across the country. Finally, bowing to increased tension and economic pressure, the store owners abandoned their segregation policies.
For the most part peaceful - if not free of contention and at times hurtful exchanges and attitudes– the sit-ins and other Civil Rights campaigns compelled positive change.
Like the pages of a coming of age journal, the news clippings and accounts of youth engaged in the Civil Rights Movement remind us of the power of determination; how far along we’ve come; and the sacrifices and hard-earned victories along the way. The Greensboro Four remind each of us to appreciate the freedoms we may take for granted, and to strive, like they did… to leave the world better place. Maybe for you it’s a healthy child, for another a well-watered garden, or a social wrong corrected.
Thanks for reading and for making a difference each day.
THEN & NOW:
The Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store where the February 1 sit-ins took place has since become the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.