ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
If you stopped somewhere today for a cup of coffee and maybe a tuna sandwich, you probably saw other people at that establishment of a different race. Today, that's no big deal. Back in 1960, in the American south, that scene would have been a very big deal.
On this day, February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T walked into a Woolworth five-and-dime in Greensboro with the intention of ordering lunch. But the manager of that store had intentions of his own. To maintain the lunch counter strict whites-only policy.
Mr. FRANKLIN McCAIN (Woolworth Protestor) I had pre-concluded if I were lucky, I would go to prison for a long, long time. If I were not so lucky, I would come back to my university campus in a pine box.
NORRIS: That was Franklin McCain. He was one of the four young men who shoved history forward by refusing to budge.
Mr. McCAIN: When we went to that store, Monday afternoon, I had some anxiety. And the anxiety was what's actually going to happen here.
NORRIS: And yet, you walked into that store anyway. Did you go straight to the counter?
Mr. McCAIN: No, we didn't. We had anticipated what some of the dialogue would be when asked for service. We determined that we would make small purchases inside the store and get receipts for them. When we did that, we sort of milled around the store for four or five minutes. Now, it seemed like an hour. About two meters away from the counter, I looked at Joseph McNeil and he looked at me. And without saying a word to each other, we strolled toward the counter and took our seats.
And I can tell you that 15 seconds after I sat on that stool, I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. And, mind you, just sitting on a dumb stool and not having to ask for service yet. It's a feeling that I don't think that I'll ever be able to have again. And I felt as though I wouldn't have been cheated out of life had that been the end of my life at that second or that moment.
But as soon as the counter or waitress personnel saw us in amazement, you could see the shock in their faces. And we started to ask for service. Initially, I don't think the poor lady knew how to respond to us. And we continued to ask. Then she finally said, I'm sorry, we can't serve you here.
And we finally said to her, we've been served, and we've got receipts to prove it. So we pulled the receipts out and said, see, we've been served. And she said, but, I know that, but I just can't serve you here. Let me call the manager.
So the manager comes out and he sees us sitting there, he turns as red as a beet. What do you boys want? And of course we said, we simply want to be served. Well, I can't serve you here. If you want to be served in this store, you have to go downstairs to the stand-up counter where colored people are served, but you can't eat here.
And we asked him the same question, what's so sacred about this counter?
Well, it's just our custom not to do that. And not only that, our policy is set by New York corporate headquarters, which turned out to be really untrue. Corporate headquarters said: Run your stores the way you see fit. That we learned later.
And we have that dialogue back and forth within - I guess, for maybe five minutes. He threw his hands up in dismay and walked back into the kitchen. And shortly thereafter, a policeman entered the store and immediately pulled his nightstick out from his side. And I said to myself, dear God, this is certainly it.
So he walked about a meter away from us, stood behind us, he strode up and down the counter, and he fixed his eyes on us. And pulling his nightstick out, he started to sort of slap it in his hands, slap it in his hands. I said, I'm sure this is it. I said to myself, we've got him. He doesn't know what to do. There's no way he can't or can do.
I learned several lessons that day, but one lesson in particular that will last me the rest of my life. There was a little old white lady who sat maybe five or six stools down from us. And if you think Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960, a little old white lady who eyes you with that suspicious look, you have to have only one thing in your mind and that is she's not having very good thoughts about you nor what you're doing.
She finally finished her doughnut and coffee. And she walked behind us and put her hands on our shoulders. So she said in a very calm voice, boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago.
What I learned from that little incident was that, Franklin, don't you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them. And I'm even more cognizant of that today — situations like that — and I'm always open to people who speak differently, who look differently and who come from different places.
NORRIS: That was Franklin McCain, one of four students who began a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Mr. McCain was at that lunch counter with Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, who's now known as Jibreel Khazan.
Mr. McCain, thank you very, very much.
Mr. McCAIN: It's been my pleasure.
NORRIS: And on that first day, the Woolworths four stayed at that lunch counter until closing. The next day, they came back with 15 other students. By the third day, 300 joined in. Then 1,000. And the sit-in spread to lunch counters across the country and changed history.
I'm Michele Norris.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.