Woolworth's Lunch Counter Sit-in Marks Anniversary
A Rutgers professor and civil rights activist recalls an act that launched a movement
‘We just kept sitting there. We would line up behind the stools and when one student would get up another would sit down.’"– George McLaughlin, professor at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine
The four students who refused to leave the lunch counter of a segregated North Carolina Woolworth's are remembered today as heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
But people like Rutgers alumnus George McLaughlin – who joined his classmates during the early days of their protest in February 1960 – also shaped history. McLaughlin, a professor at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, was among a small but growing wave of students who turned out to support the “Greensboro Four” – and kept showing up – eventually sparking a nationwide flood of student sit-ins at lunch counters across the United States.
At first, they made no difference. Woolworth issued a statement saying it would "abide by local custom" and continue refusing lunch counter service to blacks. But on July 25, five months after the protests began, and business dropped dramatically, the Greensboro Woolworth served three black protestors.
The gesture marked a symbolic end to segregation at five and dime counters throughout the South, although some were still “whites only” until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when desegregation was mandated.
The victory didn’t come easily. Many protestors, like McLaughlin, endured threats and harassment by angry whites, who tossed lit cigarettes at them or threw food and drinks.
“We just kept sitting there. We would line up behind the stools and when one student would get up another would sit down,’’ recalls McLaughlin, who graduated from the School of Dental Medicine in 1975, becoming one of the first 10 black students in its history.
In 1960, he was studying to become a mechanical engineer at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. The four initial protestors were fellow students, and although he didn’t know them very well, he felt an immediate sense of solidarity. Like them, he grew up in the Jim Crow South. His hometown of Raeford, North Carolina, had separate but unequal schools for black students and one for Native American children, who were subject to the same laws of segregation as black residents
As a child, McLaughlin remembers white students shouting racial slurs out the bus window as black students waited for their own bus to school. Sometimes, there was violence. It wasn’t uncommon for white drivers to intentionally run black pedestrians off the road, he said.
“We hoped that things would change through education. That’s the reason we all tried to go to school. That’s what our parents always told us. ‘Get an education, because that’s something no one can take a way from you,’’’ said McLaughlin, whose parents were farmers.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical was a historically black college, where students often shopped at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. “We would go buy school supplies and something to eat, but we couldn’t sit down and eat it,’’ he said.
That year, the Civil Rights movement was already underway in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the lynching of 14-year-old Emmet Till. But the four freshmen students who first refused to leave the lunch counter weren’t initially part of any organized movement, McLaughlin remembers.
“They decided they would sit down until they were served,’’ he said.
After graduation, McLaughlin went on to take engineering jobs with the U.S. Department of Defense and Westinghouse before deciding to pursue a dental degree.
But his activism didn’t end at the lunch counter. In New Jersey, he fought discriminatory housing practices, joining protests in Essex County during the 1960s and 1970s. Fifty-five years after the milestone Woolworth’s protest, views it as a reminder that everyone has the power to create change.
“We made a difference,’’ he said. “It shows that it doesn’t take a lot of individuals to start a movement.’’
Journalists are invited to contact Carrie Stetler at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine at email@example.com