Monday, February 22, 2010

The 50th Anniversary of A Simple Act of Defiance

I didn't know very much about how the sit-ins of the early '60's started. I knew, of course, that SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) was a force behind the most organized of the protests. In connection with that, I knew that these protests propelled Atlanta democratic congressman, and Civil Rights icon, John Lewis into the national spotlight. And I had also heard that it began with four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina.

What I didn't know was how compelling and revolutionary the story of these young men and their protest was. But Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr.(now known as Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain and David Richmond, four college freshmen from North Carolina A&T College, had no idea that simple act of sitting at a segregated lunch counter would, literally, transform America.

It was 50 years ago this month that the Woolworth department store of Greensboro was confronted with the challenge of ending the humiliating and dehumanizing practice of refusing service to black people on the basis of their skin color. It was the non-violent protest that focused the country's and the world's attention on the failure of our country to live up to the lofty claims of its democratic ideals. It set off similar protests that sent shock waves throughout America and freedom loving, as well as freedom demanding peoples around the globe.

As I watched 'February One', I was left encouraged and inspired by this tremendous story. It comes alive through the diary of the manager of the Woolworth lunch counter manager; the young black woman who worked at lunch counter who chided these young men for causing trouble, but who was conflicted by the humiliating realization that she was good enough to serve customers, but not good enough to eat at the counter; the elderly white woman who came and encouraged the young protesters by saying she was 'disappointed' that it took them so long and white female students who joined them in the demonstration, unplanned and unscripted, but in total solidarity with the their 'sisters' from Bennet College and the 'Greensboro Four' along with their compatriots who later joined them.

It is a wonderful, amazing story of how an unjust system which was the mentally, spiritually and psychologically poisonous fruit of what amounted to state sanctioned (and in many cases state sponsored) terrorism was broken by a simple act of defiance.

It was exhilarating to see the courage, the adventurous spirit and the commitment of these, then, 18 year old young men who so prized their dignity and self worth. And not without cost. Those who think that at 18 they had nothing to lose, are totally unmindful of the atmosphere and culture of the times - when not only the prospects for violence, but the stigma of jail, the possibility of expulsion from school and the trouble that could extend even to the families of these young men, were all a part of the cost that they courted to stand up (or sit down, if you will) for freedom.

Spend an hour, watching the "February One" and celebrate, not just Black History Month, but America's history and realize that patriotism comes in varied forms.

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