20: Looking back, the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s era usually zeroes in on dramatic moments—Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, kids being escorted into Little Rock’s Central High, little Ruby Bridges leaving school in New Orleans, marchers crossing the bridge in Selma, and so on. One of those moments came on Feb.1, 1960 when four teenagers, freshmen from North Carolina A&T, sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and tried to order some food. A statue now stands in their honor on the NC AT&T campus:
Their courage started a months-long struggle that finally led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Greensboro. It also triggered comparable “sit-ins,” as they were called, in cities all across the south, such as Nashville.
In May 1963, a Jackson, Mississippi sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter turned violent. The famous photograph below shows thugs pouring mustard, ketchup, and sugar on the protesters. What it doesn’t show is that some of the protesters were beaten up, while the police (and quite probably some FBI agents in sunglasses) stood by and watched and did nothing. Nor does it show that just a couple of weeks later, Medgar Evers, the local NAACP leader, was murdered by the “White Citizens Council.”
The young woman next to the lemonade machine is Anne Moody, at the time a student at Tougaloo College. She later wrote a memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Moody died in February 2015.
A much earlier sit-in happened in Des Moines, Iowa in 1948. On a hot July day, a Katz’ Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Des Moines refused to sell ice cream sodas to Edna Griffin (1909-2000), her young daughter, and two friends. Griffin then organized a boycott, led sit-ins, and filed both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit against Katz’. Unlike the southern states, where segregation was protected (and even required) by law, Iowa had a civil rights law since 1884 that banned discrimination in public accommodations.
Edna Griffin served in the WACs in World War II. She has been dubbed the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.”
In the months that followed, the drug store was convicted on the criminal charge, and an all-white jury also granted the civil suit.
A portion of the Katz’ lunch counter is part of the permanent exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa, in Cedar Rapids.
The building that housed Katz’ Drug has been renamed the Edna W. Griffin Building. There is also a downtown bridge and a Des Moines park named in her honor.
But why the focus on lunch counters? Many people under 40 may have never even seen a lunch counter, except in old photos or in a museum. Let’s just say that in 1960, the world was a very different place.
Back then, for most Americans, “going shopping” meant going downtown. Strip malls (called “shopping centers” back then) were emerging in suburban areas. Enclosed shopping malls were just beginning to appear. (The first, the Southdale mall, near Minneapolis, had opened in late 1956.) But in 1960, if you wanted to go to the big department stores, like Penney’s or Montgomery Ward or Sears & Roebuck, as well as local stores such as Macy’s, Dayton’s, and so on, you had to go downtown. Shoppers could also go to the so-called “dime stores” (or “five and dime”) like Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Newberry’s and so on. This was the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, but you would have seen about the same thing anywhere across the nation—
Shopping downtown wasn’t easy. There’s a reason that the malls became so popular, and ultimately put the downtown stores out of business. In many cities, going downtown first meant driving round and round the blocks in search of a parking spot. Then it required walking (and probably a lot of walking) from store to store, spread out over several blocks. Then after an hour or two, you’d have to stop and walk back to your car, either to plunk more money in the parking meter, or find a new spot.
My hometown of Sioux Falls, SD, c.1961. Even a small downtown could be congested and present parking challenges for shoppers. The Newberry’s dime store on the left corner had a lunch counter, as did the Woolworth’s next to it.
Naturally, people got hungry and thirsty. Fast-food drive-ins were still in their infancy, and there were certainly no fast-food places like McDonald’s downtown. Obviously, there were restaurants and small, diner-like places. But most of the stores themselves had lunch counters. The lunch counters were the fast-food of the day for downtown shoppers. These counters (or “luncheonettes”) served sodas and ice cream, and everything from cold sandwiches & chips to burgers & fries, and sometimes even hot sandwiches like roast beef with mashed potatoes & gravy.
Roast Beef Sandwich: My childhood favorite at the grocery store lunch counter
But across the south, lunch counters were only for white folks, even though they were often serviced by African Americans. Lunch counters were designed so that you’d have to sit next to people you didn’t know. And in the south, many white people were horrified at the prospect of having to sit next to a black person.
So lunch counter discrimination presented a double indignity: first, there was the sheer inconvenience of going downtown to shop and then not being able to buy refreshments because of your skin color; then add to it the in-your-face reminder that the white population had so much contempt for you that they couldn’t even bear to sit next to you in any public place such as a lunch counter.
Imagine going to the mall today and being told that you can’t eat at the food court. Your money was good enough when you were buying that cute little shirt at Hot Topic. But when it comes to grabbing a plate of orange chicken from the Panda Express? Sorry, we don’t serve your kind. Yet that’s what African Americans faced under Jim Crow. Access to food was about the simple human dignity of being able to sit down for a Coke after a long afternoon of shopping or tending to other business.
Integration couldn’t save the downtown dime stores from the malls. Kresge’s turned into K-Mart, Woolworth’s turned into Foot Locker, and most of the others have long disappeared. But the Woolworth’s building in Greensboro still stands, along with a section of the famous lunch counter, as part of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.