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With the lunch counter sit-in, ordinary citizens ignited the spirit of change nationwide.

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On the afternoon of Feb 1, 1960, four students from the all-black North Carolina A&T College walked into an F.W. Woolworth department store in downtown Greensboro. No one knew it at the time, but they were part of the first wave of a titanic change in American life. The four neatly dressed students, all of them male, all of them freshmen, quietly slid into seats at the lunch counter, which had a strict policy of serving only white customers. When they were refused service, they remained at the counter until management ordered the store closed. The next day nearly two dozen more students showed up to join the sit-in. “By the fourth day,” as the historian James T. Patterson wrote, “white women from the local University of North Carolina Women’s College joined them. By then protesters, mostly black students, were starting to sit in at lunch counters elsewhere in the state.”

A fire had been lit, and it spread with great quickness and energy. Later that same February, the future congressman John Lewis and two other students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennesse kicked off a series of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the heart of Nashville’s business district. Diane Nash, a key student leader in the effort, reflected on the sit-ins in the documentary Eyes on the Prize: “The first sit-in we had was really funny because the waitresses were nervous and they must have dropped $2,000 worth of dishes that day. Literally, it was like a cartoon. We were sitting there trying not to laugh because we thought laughing would be insulting … At the same time, we were scared to death.”

After a few days, the police began arresting the protesters, but always there was a new contingent that immediately took the seats vacated by those who were carted off to jail. “No matter what they did and how many they arrested,” said Nash, “there was still a lunch counter full of students there.”

Within months, the sit-ins spread to dozens of American cities. Many of the protesters were beaten and thousands were arrested, but they would not give in. Some cities desegregated their lunch counters; others resisted. But by the mid-1960s the civil rights movement, with its marches and demonstrations, its freedom rides, court fights and other initiatives, had achieved a critical mass. The era of legal segregation in America was brought to a close.

What had happened was astonishing. Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power had profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful and courageous efforts they had shifted the nation onto a better path.

A comparable effort by ordinary citizens is needed today.

— Bob Hebert, Epilogue: Looking Ahead

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