The docent spoke in soft tones, as if attending a sacred site. With deliberateness and care, she instructed me how to participate in the simulation. “Sit in the middle seat,” she said, “Put on the headphones and place your palms down on the counter. It takes ninety seconds, but it’s o.k. if you don’t last that long.”
I was visiting the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the platform on which I sat is part of the center’s exhibit, “Rolls Down Like Waters: The American Civil Rights Movement.” The simulation recreates the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, in which four black college students refused to move from a whites-only lunch counter unless and until they were served a cup of coffee.
“Ninety seconds?!?” I thought to myself, “I can endure anything for ninety seconds.” I did as I was instructed, closed my eyes, and waited for the simulation to begin. Immediately, the headphones were filled with the sounds of commotion, as if coming from behind me, and then there was heavy, angry breathing in my ear. A voice seethed racial slurs at me and threatened personal violence if I didn’t move. Then the chair jolted and shook. I heard someone next to me dragged from his seat, followed by cries of pain. Tears welled in my eyes, and—unexpectedly—I felt my heart race. “I’m having a flight response,” I thought in surprise, “I’m afraid.” I was relieved when ninety seconds expired, and I could walk back into the personal safety of my white majority world.
The sit-in movement spread of course, to Richmond, Nashville, and other cities. Sit-ins became an important motivator in the broader civil rights movement, catching the attention of President Eisenhower and the national media, spreading to other venues such as swimming pools and libraries in both southern and northern cities, and eventually including up to 70,000 protestors. In the case of the Greensboro Woolworth, the store finally ended its segregationist policy five months later, once it had lost $200,000 in sales revenue from the disruption. Through the courage of four young North Carolinians, who lasted infinitely longer than ninety seconds,the world began to change.
As we observe Black History Month, we do well to remember not only those iconic figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also four men—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—at a Woolworth lunch counter and the thousands who followed their lead, who served as the vanguard of the vision of God’s kingdom in this land, in which the blessed diversity of God’s people live together in peace and love.