February is Black History Month in the United States. It pays tribute to people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. A pivotal moment happened 50 years ago when four black university students in North Carolina sat down at a whites-only lunch counter to get something to eat. They were denied service, but their actions re-ignited the U.S. civil rights movement and the struggle by millions of African Americans to achieve racial equality and justice.
Hundreds of people gathered at a former Woolworth department store to pay tribute to what happened here 50 years ago. Inspired by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., four black college students walked into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1st, 1960. They sat down at the "whites only" lunch counter but were denied service because of their skin color.
"In our hearts we all thought that racial segregation was evil," said participant Joseph McNeil.
Joseph McNeil was just 17 years old when he and his friends refused to leave the segregated counter. At the time, they could have been arrested for breaking so called "Jim Crow" laws that were enacted to keep blacks and whites separated at public places such as theaters, hotels and restaurants.
"If we had to be arrested for a week or one day or two months or three months we felt what we were trying to do was worth it to make that statement and to defy racial segregation," he added.
Franklin McCain says he was driven to participate in the sit-ins because of the discrimination that surrounded him.
"I was quite ready to do something to seek relief, a spot of dignity, humanity and my manhood," said McCain. "And fortunately I met three other guys who felt the same way."
Jibreel Khazan from Greensboro remembers what the white waitress told them.
"'What do you boys want?' And we said we would like to be served very politely. And she said. 'You know we don't serve colored people here, there is a lunch counter over there, a stand up counter.' And we said thank you ma'am we'd rather sit here," recalled Khazan.
Days later and tired of the discriminatory practices, more blacks and even some white people got involved in the sit-in movement. Joseph McNeil says that at one point more than 500 students jammed the lunch counters at Woolworth and other stores with segregated lunch counters.
"We were doing what needed to be done," said McNeil. "Not just that, but keeping up the commitment of coming back day after day as we promised the stores what we would do if they didn't open the [lunch] counters to everyone."
Longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond says the Greensboro sit-ins changed the course of the civil rights movement during the 1960's.
"It injected a degree of activism in the civil rights movement which until then had been largely confined to activism in the courts," explained Bond. "All of a sudden, activism in the streets became part of the arena, part of the weaponry that the movement used and that just changed everything."
In July 1960, and after $200,000 in lost business, Woolworth agreed to integrate its store allowing blacks to be served at the lunch counter.
Historian Lonnie Bunch says the Greensboro campaign was not the first, but it did capture national media attention and spark hundreds of similar non-violent protests across the country.
"So celebrating the Greensboro sit-in really tells us we are celebrating the sit-ins that occurred in other parts of the south and other cities throughout the north," noted Bunch.
Jebreel Khazan says he's honored to have a place in history but gives credit to the wisdom of his ancestors.
"We just happened to be blessed to be the four that did this and it caught fire throughout the country but all things are possible if we only believe and that was what I was taught," he said.
On the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, a new chapter in the history of the civil rights movement has begun with a new international civil rights museum. Community leaders want it to be a lasting tribute to the sacrifices so many African Americans made for equality and social justice.