Dis-Commemorating the Greensboro Sit-Ins: Whites’ Continued Rejection of the Movement

Greensboro, North Carolina, is considered the birthplace of the student lunch counter sit-ins of the early-1960s. This Tuesday marked the 51st anniversary of the proactive step planned and enacted by four African American male freshmen students at historically black North Carolina A&T State University on February 1, 1960, to sit resolutely in protest at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s, one of the city’s prominent five-and-dime stores. The “Greensboro Four” were Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later, Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, and a statue of them walking resolutely, shoulder-to-shoulder, has for 10 years now been displayed on NC A&T’s campus.

woolworth sit-ins

(Creative Commons License photo credit: charlie_combine)

Greensboro was not the first site of African American’s sit-in protests against whites-only public facilities; accounts of similar actions reach back decades prior. Nevertheless, the action by McNeil, McCain, Blair, Richmond, and the hundreds of other students who joined them in subsequent days, inspired a rapid implementation of sit-in protests throughout the segregated South within a matter of weeks. After nearly five months of strong resistance to let go of “local custom,” the white management of the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally caved and served its first seated black lunch counter customers (ironically, its own employees) on July 25, 1960.

February 1, 1960 was a historic moment in the American – and global – human rights story. And it is the sit-ins alone that make Greensboro a memorable city in the American consciousness. Many Greensboro citizens, especially African Americans, have embraced this identity of their city as the birthplace of the sit-ins, and this recognition led to the renovation of the original downtown Woolworth’s store into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened in 2010 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration.

But what I have found in my interviews with older white residents of Greensboro, on the racial past including their memories of segregation and the civil rights era, is that the identity as an important site of civil rights struggles has been largely ignored or rejected by white Greensboro. It clashes with white Greensboro’s long-held notion of itself as epitomizing progressiveness, especially regarding race. In his excellent book on the civil rights era in the city, Civilities and Civil Rights, historian Bill Chafe calls white Greensboro’s delusion about its racial enlightenment the “progressive mystique.”

For my dissertation, I wanted to investigate how ordinary white people recall the racial past, so I came to a city known for its racial history. I’ve been living in Greensboro for a few years and have conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of lifetime white residents of the city, people old enough to have lived through Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights era.

When people described the actions of sit-in protestors, their portrayals were cursory and often dismissive. One woman in her 70s said:

They didn’t make any fuss or anything. They just got together and they just ambled in to Woolworth’s and asked to be served.

Saying that protestors “just got together” and “just ambled in” portrays their organizing as spontaneous, the implementation lackadaisical, and the backlash as insignificant. Virtually no one indicated that many white business owners fought hard, for months in many cases, to maintain segregation policies.

A few people credited the sit-in demonstrators for bravery, but there was very little willingness to promote the organizers to heroes, or people worth celebrating. A woman in her 80s said she would have been a superior protestor:

Had I been born black, I would’ve protested before they did. I would have. I have never understood how they had the patience as long as they did.

While acknowledging the inherent unfairness of segregation practices, this woman belittled those who she thinks waited much longer to act than her fictitious black self would have.

In these ways and more, the older white lifetime residents of Greensboro I interviewed demonstrated that they had not accepted their city as an important site of Civil Rights Movement activism. To fully embrace that identity, they would have to redefine themselves and loose their grasp on this belief that (white) Greensboro had for centuries been “good to the blacks,” a diamond in the rough city that the rest of the region and nation could hold up as a model of racial progressiveness.

This exchange with a married couple illustrates well just how adamantly some white Greensboro residents reject the notion that their city should be known for the sit-ins:

Wife: That museum should be on the campus of A&T, where the students came from, not in downtown Greensboro. . . . And I’m not against the museum . . . but it should be down on the campus where the A&T students were, and have it as a commemoration to them.

Husband: Isn’t that statue of the four down on campus? Me: Mm-hm. Wife: You see, put the museum down there with that.

Me: Do you have any pride that the sit-ins happened here. Wife: No. Me: and that they started sit-ins all over the South?

Wife: I thought it really started out in Omaha, Nebraska, is what I heard and that they did not get the publicity Greensboro got. That’s what I’ve heard. Now I don’t know how true that is. I’ve tried to look it up on the computer, and I hadn’t been able to trace . . . No, I’m not proud of that, no. No, we have other things to be proud of. O’Henry was born here, Dolley Madison was born here. Okay? Yes, Edward R. Murrow was born here. We are very proud of those citizens, absolutely. I admire these four young men that took the initiative for the sit-in. I admire their courage for it.

Husband: Took a lot of guts.

Wife: but these other people are to be admired more for what they did and the legacy that they have left for us.

Me: Why is that?

Wife: Well, Dolley Madison was the wife of our fourth President! And she was born out here near Guilford College. So Dolley was quite a lady. O’Henry is known for his short stories. They’ve been translated into many, many, many foreign languages, and he was born here outside of Greensboro. Edward R. Murrow, who was the leading commentator and correspondent during the Second World War, he was born here in Greensboro. These are the people that really accomplished an awful lot. We had other people that accomplished things. We had another black man who did an awful lot for the city of Greensboro, Charles Henry Moore, who is not very well known, but he was a teacher and professor at the colleges here. He was instrumental in getting Bennett College established in Greensboro. He was instrumental in raising money for the black hospital, L. Richardson Hospital. He opened the door for a lot of the blacks and unfortunately he is not remembered like these other people, but he contributed a lot to improve their way of life.

This woman argued that Greensboro’s sit-ins should not be commemorated because she “heard” they began elsewhere first, and, if commemorations are designed, they should be sequestered on the campus of NC A&T. She refused to view civil rights actions as a movement that significantly improved African Americans’ “way of life” or left a “legacy” for the city and beyond.

In my research I have found that a great many whites today are unable or unwilling to extend genuine respect and admiration for African Americans, especially activists from civil rights and post-civil rights eras. They refuse to acknowledge that black Americans have contributed, perhaps more than anyone else, to the expansion of our most dearly-held American values of “liberty and justice” and that these gains have benefited all citizens, including whites. In rejecting the reality that the Jim Crow society whites had formed was inherently unjust, they can continue to deem whites as virtuous and African Americans as second-class citizens.

It continues to be a radical act to challenge white racism openly in the U.S.A. And, unfortunately, it is also a radical act to commemorate those moments in our history that exposed and weakened the contradictions between our American pride and our American racism. Let us continue, in the spirit of February One, to be radical by remembering well and taking collective action.

Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Visual images are crucial to the struggle for justice.  This was the central theme in the exhibit For All the World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights at the International Center of Photography, which I saw the weekend it closed here in New York City.  The exhibit, guest curated by Maurice Berger, included still photographs, magazine covers, advertisements, newsreels, films, and artifacts with images (such as church fans with Dr. King’s picture).

(Image by Ernest Withers from ICP)

Much of the civil rights struggle for public opinion was fought through the creation of images that captured the struggle in graphic terms.  Montgomery, Alabama-based photographer, Charles Moore, famously said, “I fight with my camera.” His photos of Dr. and Mrs. King being arrested in Montgomery, and the release of the photos over the AP wire helped galvanize support for the nascent civil rights movement.  His photo of dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, many of them children, ran on the front pages of many newspapers worldwide.   For his part, Dr. King was not simply a passive photographic subject, but was acutely aware of how images of him and the movement were used in the cause of civil rights.  To read more about this, I strongly recommend Sasha Torres’ Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2003)

I was especially delighted to see some early versions of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine, Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which averaged monthly circulation of 30,000 in 1915.   DuBois was also committed to the use of visual culture as a way to promote civil rights for African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.  For example, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, DuBois organized “The American Negro Exhibit” in which he displayed photographs of middle-class blacks dressed in their finest clothes, which was an explicit attempt on his part to represent African American achievement for an international audience.  DuBois was also the target of criticism for the particular way he deployed visual culture on the cover of the Crisis, often using light-skinned black women to draw readers (not unlike the recent controversy over the Elle cover that Joe mentioned). For an excellent analysis of DuBois’ approach to visual culture, see Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. DuBois, Race and Visual Culture (Duke UP, 2004).

Unfortunately, there was little of this in the exhibit. While DuBois was an ardent supporter of women’s rights (he said  “every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage”), there was little mention of the struggle for gender equality in the exhibit.   Even in the curation for the photo above, there was little discussion of the gendered quality of this protest.  In many ways, I found this exhibit much less compelling than the one I saw last summer at PS1 featuring the work of Hank Willis Thomas about the commodification of black bodies.

The other unavoidable shortcoming of the exhibit was that it didn’t deal with the controversy surrounding Ernest Withers, the creator of the image featured above.  Withers was an important photographer in the struggle for civil rights (he took the photo of lynching victim Emmett Till in his open casket.)  And, it’s just been revealed, Withers also worked as an FBI informant.   So while his photographs worked to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice, he simultaneously helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.  Withers deeply mixed legacy troubles our understanding the civil rights photographer who “fights with his camera.”

Overall, I’m glad I caught this exhibit, perhaps most especially for the short news clip of Malcolm X being interviewed.  I’m mostly glad because it reminded me of some of the excellent scholarship, such as Torres’ and Smith’s work, on race, civil rights and visual culture.

Attacks and Expulsions: French Governments against the Roma, Again



The BBC has a news reports on organized French human rights protests against French government expulsions and other negative treatment of French Roma people (so-called “gypsies’):

Thousands of people have been attending rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government’s policy of deporting Roma people.

A majority of French respondents in polls support the government expulsions and other apparent “cleansing” of these mostly working class residents of France:

About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year. The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government “xenophobia” and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.

French President Sarkozy has apparently expanded these high-profile campaigns for political reasons, even against opposition in his presidential cabinet:

Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.

There have been violent encounters between the Roma and non-Roma police in some cities:

In mid-July, riots erupted in Grenoble after police shot an alleged armed robber during a shootout. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, after police shot dead a French Roma man who had allegedly not stopped at a police checkpoint.

French politicians’ expulsion and other policing actions have seen dissent and criticism from international sources like the Vatican and the United Nations, even the European Commission.

The article largely ignores the large scale racialized discrimination that targets the Roma, something Jessie detailed here. I am not very familiar with these recent French events, or the background. Perhaps some of our viewers can add some savvy comments on the situation in France.

David Brion Davis on Slavery and Abolition: Impact on US Wealth



Here is a very good 2009 video lecture (at Emory U.) by a leading scholar of slavery and its economic impact, as well as the resistance to it–Dr. David Brion Davis, of Yale University.

This one is called “American and British Slave Trade Abolition in Perspective.” This would be very good for use in a course on U.S. history, and/or racism/slavery. It is in six parts, and here are the summaries:

The historical contexts of African slavery in the Americas and the relationship with free market forces and the “New World” global economy.

The connections between enslaved African labor, trans-Atlantic trade, and the increasing availability of luxury goods for mass market consumption. How did anti-slavery movements arise in this growing market context?

Three major factors led to the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trade of enslaved Africans: revolutionary changes in moral perceptions of slavery, Anglo American antipathy towards a growing African American population, and the population growth rate of enslaved African Americans in North America.

The North American “moral luxury” of condemning the trade of enslaved Africans while supporting domestic slavery; the increasing political enthusiasm for white immigration over black enslaved labor; the impacts of the French and Haitian Revolutions on trade abolition developments.

The political and moral debates between delegates from northern states and southern slaveholding states after the Revolutionary War that led to U.S. abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

A comparison of the impacts of the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the debates over what to do with the “contraband” of enslaved Africans intercepted in the newly illegal trade.

Highly recommended.

International Athletes Protest Racism: US Media Ignore Protests

At OpEdNews, Bill Hare scooped the mainstream media with a story I still have not seen anywhere else, the reality of numerous antiracism protests by World Cup athletes in South Africa recently. Not only were there pictures of former Black president Nelson Mandela everywhere at the various playing arenas, but there were regular demonstrations of a

fervent commitment to stamp out international racism. . . . Before the games begin player representatives of the competing national teams deliver statements condemning racism.

He added:

After that, in a show of unity, pictures are taken of both teams as the players that will shortly be locked in determined competition are shown posing together. The focus is on understanding and camaraderie as opposed to hate, bigotry and ignorance.

The diversity on some of these football teams was also impressive.

I wonder why in our mainstream media we have had several stories of racist actions across the country by our lunatic fringe–such as at some Tea Party events and by far-right talk show hosts–and yet no stories of these demonstrations against such racism by many of the world’s leading athletes.

It is good to see some modest, if too quickly and weakly analyzed, reporting on U.S. racism, but we should pay more attention to the actions and words of such antiracist activism, especially in the international context.

There is a certain public and media provincialism and parochialism that seems to go with our conventional America-first nationalism.

Happy May Day! Lots of Worker Rallies Today



Happy May Day, the workers of the world day!

And undocumented workers are the center of attention in marches by thousands of Americans today.

Alternet reports on some new actions by this peoples’ movement

Do I Look “Illegal”? – Latino Nationwide Movement Building: Arizona’s draconian immigration law is creating a wave of Latino social network activism. Following the signing of S.B. 1070, one of the most anti-immigrant laws in the country, Latinos have chosen to mobilize online in numbers rarely seen before. Within 24 hours of launching the “Do I Look ‘Illegal’?” campaign, the Latino page Cuéntame has seen an immediate response — with thousands adopting the mantra and ready to take action. …. Latinos taking part in this new wave of social network activism have not only spread the message by wearing “Do I Look ‘Illegal’?” T-shirts, signs and posts but are spreading the message of the campaign online via status updates, pictures, blogs, video and making full use of all the social media tools available. It is reminiscent of the Twitter green movement that took place last year. As such Cuéntame along with other Latino groups continue to plan actions in Arizona and Los Angeles with on-the-ground organizations to protest S.B. 1070.

The “Do I Look ‘Illegal’?” movement shows that not only have Latinos arrived in full force to the world of social media activism but that these actions are prompting massive on the ground efforts which represent the first major Latino mobilization in light of the 2010 mid-term elections.

It is striking how many people’s movements are now using the Internet and social media to create truly democratic and progressive movements that bring out ten to one hundred times the number of overwhelmingly white folks who turn out for the Republican-linked teabagger rallies.

Antiracist Action and Lives Lost: William L. Moore



At DailyKos today Blueness reminds us of how brave Americans can be in the struggle for racial equality. On this day, some 47 years ago the courageous William Moore, a postal worker and civil rights activist from Baltimore began his walk from Chattanooga to Jackson, Mississippi. He had a letter for one of our leading autocratic, white supremacist politicians, heading up a totalitarian Jim Crow system, Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi– a letter pressing him for racial desegregation. This was Moore’s third freedom walk:

On Moore’s final walk, as soon as he crossed the state line into Alabama, he was assailed by white motorists who denounced him as a “nigger-lover,” and pelted him with rocks. On April 23, radio station WGAD in Gadsden, Alabama received an anonymous phone tip as to Moore’s location. Reporter Charlie Hicks drove out to find Moore walking along a rural stretch of Highway 11 near Attalla. Moore told Hicks, “I intend to walk right up to the governor’s mansion in Mississippi and ring his door bell. Then I’ll hand him my letter.” …. Less than an hour after Hicks left him, a motorist found Moore’s body about a mile farther down the road, shot twice in the head at close range with a .22 caliber rifle. The gun was traced to one Floyd Simpson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, with whom Moore had discussed integration, interracial marriage, and religion earlier in the day.

“I don’t see how anybody,” Simpson later said, “could believe in such things as intermarriage between the white and Negro races unless he was being paid for it. I told him they are having trouble in Birmingham, and I advised him to turn back as he would never get through Birmingham.”

Moore’s letter to Governor Barnet thad this message:

the white man cannot be truly free himself until all men have their rights. . .. Be gracious and give more than is immediately demanded of you.

Blueness continues with the follow-up:

Over the next month, 29 other people, black and white, tried to complete Moore’s walk. All carried signs reading “Mississippi Or Bust.” All were arrested and jailed.

And of course there was little white support, even from “liberal sources” for such protests, something we should not forget either:

The New York Times opined that Moore had died on a “pitifully naive pilgrimage”; two years previously, in the wake of brutal assaults on Freedom Riders, a Gallup poll found that 63% of white Americans who were aware of white civil-rights activists, like Moore and the Freedom Riders, disapproved of them. Just weren’t ready yet, most white folk.

Many whites still are not prepared for a truly desegregated society. Moore was 36 years old, a CORE member and veteran civil rights activist, and he was white. (see here).

April 4, 1968 — A Time to Remember



April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 42 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this Easter day, 2010.

Reflections on the The March for America: a Movement Matures

As I waited in the bus for the rest of our riders to come trickling in, two middle-aged,  men, Ricardo and José,  slowly walked in, clearly fatigued after the pre-march rally, immigrant rights march, four-hour rally and long hike to the stadium where hundreds of buses were parked. As they stumbled in  José  asked “and now what do we tell Obama”? “Nothing more for now”, responded an exhausted Ricardo as he plopped on his bus seat. “We have already spoken with our bodies”.

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(Image from Messay Photography @Flickr – excellent slideshow here)

Four years ago when I started researching the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, a march of this magnitude in DC was barely imaginable.  I was one of a group of scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago who were closely studying the megamarches in Chicago while observing from afar the multitude of marches in cities large and small throughout the country.  Spurred by  by a loose coalition of organizations,  churches, religious groups and unions in light of the collective fear  of a bill that would have criminalized immigrants and those who supported them, the megamarches were a sign of Latino political potential, albeit ones that relied primarily on the strengths of each home base. The kind of national organization and coordination of grassroots efforts that a megamarch on DC would have required still seemed quite distant. Moreover, after an immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate failed in the summer of 2007, some feared that perhaps the Latino muscle shown would be hard to revive. The marches continued, but dwindled significantly in numbers in 2008 and 2009.

However, interpreting this decline in the number of marchers as a decline of the immigrant rights movement would be a serious mistake.  Post-2006 activism and advocacy continued in many forms. Throughout the country new community organizations proliferated in many major cities but also were created for the first time in small cities, suburbs and villages that had great immigrant demographic growth but low preexisting levels of organization.  For example, last year, in the Chicago metro area, PASO,  the West Suburban Action project, was founded, bringing  together two large churches and several suburbs to organize for immigrant rights among other issues.  Barely four months ago,  a group of undocumented youth created the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) , born out of an arduous and ultimately successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a local college student. Eleven days before the DC march, the IYJL staged its first major action, a march and rally. Stating that they were undocumented and unafraid,  eight undocumented youth publicly came out of the shadows, telling their painful stories of what it means to grow up undocumented in the US, emphasizing their need to speak for themselves about their lack of freedom and opportunity in the only country they consider their home.

Meanwhile, older organizations continued their steady work. Centro Sin Fronteras continued to focus on the family separation issue, working  closely with Continue reading…