In one remarkable day, four college freshmen changed the course of American history. On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil—later dubbed the Greensboro Four—began a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in a small city in North Carolina. The act of simply sitting down to order food in a restaurant that refused service to anyone but whites is now widely regarded as one of the pivotal moments in the American Civil Rights Movement. Offering an unusually intimate portrait of four men whose moral courage at ages 17 and 18 not only changed public accommodation laws in North Carolina but also served as a blueprint for non-violent protests throughout the 1960s, FEBRUARY ONE: The Story of the Greensboro Four reveals how these idealistic college students became friends and inspired one another to stage the sit-in, and how the burden of history has impacted their lives ever since.
Despite hard-fought gains in the fight for racial equality, segregation was still firmly entrenched in 1960 America. Black citizens were still treated as second-class citizens. The brutal 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till—an event that first made Greensboro Four members aware of the violent consequences of racism—served as a call for change. Recent advances in Civil Rights included the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock High School in Arkansas. But by 1960, the movement had hit a lull.
Woolworth’s in Greensboro
Photo by Harvey Wang
February 1, 1960 changed that. The Greensboro Four were close friends at North Carolina A&T University, and two of the four had grown up where segregation was not legal, while another's father was active in the NAACP. In FEBRUARY ONE, they recount how the idea for the sit-in grew out of their late-night talks in the campus dormitory. On the night of January 31, 1960, the four dared each other to do something that would change the country and their own lives forever. They decided to sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth's in downtown Greensboro the next day.
On February 1, dressed in their Sunday best, the four men sat down at the lunch counter. Frank McCain remembers that he knew then this would be the high point of his life: "I felt clean... I had gained my manhood by that simple act." The four were refused service. When they did not leave, the store manager closed the lunch counter. In the days that followed, they were joined by more students from local colleges. The Civil Rights Movement was the first major social movement to be covered by television news, so word of the events in Greensboro spread across the nation like a prairie fire. Within just a few days, students were sitting in at lunch counters in 54 cities around the South.
Although Greensboro's civic leadership pressured the president of North Carolina A&T to halt the protests, he counseled the students to follow their own consciences. Finally, after months of protests, the Woolworth management quietly integrated its lunch counter during the summer when students weren't around. The wave of direct action started by the Greensboro Four coalesced in the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. FEBRUARY ONE tells the story of one of the most pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement, a movement of ordinary people motivated to extraordinary deeds. This moving film shows how a small group of determined individuals can galvanize a mass movement, spur others to action and focus a nation's attention on justice and change.
Statue honoring the Greensboro Four
at North Carolina A&T State University
(Photo courtesy of North Carolina A&T
In December 2004, filmmakers Dr. Steven Channing and Rebecca Cerese reported:
The Greensboro Four are still friends. They gather every year with David Richmond’s family on the campus of North Carolina A&T to celebrate the anniversary of the February One sit-in, and introduce a new generation to their not so distant past. All three of the surviving members continue to work in their local communities to facilitate change. Franklin McCain is particularly interested in education reform in Charlotte, NC, Jibreel Khazan works with many youth groups in New Bedford, MA, and Joe McNeil visits schools to discuss the events of February One to a new generation of children.
Meet the Greensboro Four >>
Find out more about the sit-in >>
Learn more about Emmett Till >>
Read about the SNCC and organizations that fought for civil rights >>
Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan) and Joe McNeil walking out of Woolworth's on the first day (Photo by Jack Moebes. By permission.)
The white opposition during the second day of the sit-in (Photo by Jack Moebes. By
Protesters join in (Photo by Jack Moebes. By permission.)