“They sat so we could stand up,” reads the motto on a t-shirt in the window of the International Civil Rights Museum I recently visited in neighboring Greensboro, North Carolina. My Australians were in town, and they asked to go. It was a sobering experience, even though I’d been to the museum before.
On February 1, 1960, four young college students went to the lunch counter at the local Woolworth Dime Store. Because of the Jim Crow laws, and because they were Negro, these young men could order at the counter, but they had to take away their food. They could not sit and eat at the counter with white people. And by the way, there were many other restrictions on their freedom besides that one, based only on the color of their skin.
They were not served that day, nor were they and the other young people of color who went each day from February 1 to mid-July, to sit and wait to order and be served, from opening to closing… every single day. Persistence, politeness, and peacefulness finally broke the system. Four employees (of color) were asked to sit, and they were served, ate their food, and integrated the lunch counter. Part of that counter is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D. C. The rest, there in Greensboro, is the original.
Our past is our past and our history is our history. We have moments of pride and moments of shame. It is the human condition, individual and collective, across time and nation. Being in the museum, that original Woolworth’s store, in the cafe, and knowing that four brave guys took a chance to peacefully change a wrong practice for the right one made gave me goosebumps.
Civil Rights are not just about race. They are about equality for all humankind. You don’t need me to list all the groups for which this need for equality applies. I’m pretty sure I’m not as courageous as the Greensboro Four, and I’m grateful they were.