Fifty years ago, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and State University entered a Woolworth’s store and approached the lunch counter.
Their desire was simple — to walk through the front door of the establishment, sit at the lunch counter, place their orders and enjoy a meal like every other paying customer.
But instead of blending in with the crowd, these particular patrons stood out like a sore thumb. Although their money was green like everyone else’s, it was no good because unlike the other patrons, their skin had too much pigment.
The year was 1960, the place was Greensboro, N.C., and the students were smack-dab in the middle of the Jim Crow South, where unequal treatment for blacks was the rule and there were no exceptions.
If you were black in those days, dealing with “white only” signs on water-fountains, seats on buses, department store windows and most public places was a way of life.
The actions of those students would kick off a series of nonviolent student sit-ins around the country that would help college students gain the respect of their elder civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday celebration is marked today as a national holiday.
According to author Taylor Branch, King is said to have later told student organizers, “What is fresh, what is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, led and sustained by students. What is new is that American students have come of age. You now can take your honored places in the worldwide struggle for freedom.”
As the sit-in movement gained momentum, the students endured increasing verbal and even physical abuse, all the while turning the proverbial “other cheek.”
“From today’s perspective, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it,” said Charmaine Gilmore, a Brenau University senior.
“But looking back at the 1960s, I think I would have been more passionate about it seeing how the African-American race was being oppressed and it was so much adversity. So I think I would have had the strength and courage then to sit in and try and make a difference during that time.”
While the sit-ins were staged by mostly black students, there were some white students who joined the movement.
“I’d like to think that I would have been one of those fewer Caucasian people who joined the movement, but you never know until you are in that situation,” said Ashley Lamphier, a Brenau University junior.
“But I’ve always believed actions speak louder than words and in the importance of standing up for what you believe in. And I believe in doing what’s right for the equality for all people.”
Because students fought back then for equality, students today are able to walk into establishments like The Collegiate Grill on Main Street, which first opened in 1947, and enjoy a milkshake and hamburger just like everyone else.
Because today’s students don’t have to fight for every right, older generations may think that these students are a group without a cause.
But that isn’t true. Though many of today’s students are removed from the same type of struggle as students in the 1960s, there are causes that they believe in and work to bolster support for.
“I can’t speak for other campuses, but here at Brenau we are working toward being more sustainable and going green, which I think will be one of the major issues especially with global warming and keeping our planet going,” sophomore Danielle Cesar said.
“I feel our culture now, we are taking a stand toward going green and doing what we can to save the planet.”
And despite many critics labeling today’s young adults as the “me generation,” there are individuals who realize the importance of continuing to strive for excellence and clearing the way for other generations to follow — much like the North Carolina students who started the college sit-in movement.
“I think it’s all about the education of the generation after us,” said Jillian Ford, Brenau University sophomore.
“It matters what we do. If they see us constantly pushing and constantly trying then maybe if we teach them that, then generations will get better eventually.”