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Social Justice in Action

The Greensboro Sit-In and Obama

by CECIL BROWN

Teresa Prout, a city editor for the News-Record,  a small newspaper in Greensboro, N. C., was kicking around ideas with her colleagues about how to publicize the opening of the Civil Rights Museum to commemorate the Greensboro sit-in of 1960, February 1.

”Let’s call the President,” she suggested jokingly. Maybe he could write a letter to the paper?

One of the reporters at the meeting, Mark Binker, took Ms Prout’s suggestion seriously and began hustling Senator Kay Hagean’s office to pass the request on to the President.

Mark kept calling and asking if there was any news, but nothing. Then suddenly, one day, a note came that the President asking how long the essay should be. About five hundred words, Mr. Binker said, but then added that since he was the President and he could “go longer if he wanted to.”

Then on Sunday, January 24, 2010, the newspaper received an essay entitled“Obama: Greensboro sit-ins left Mark on Nation” — by President Barack Obama.”

It is well known that the President has a soft spot for the Greensboro Four sit-in. When he gave his important address to the NAACP Centennial Convention in 2009, he listed the Greensboro sit-in as being the catalyst that reignited the civil rights movement after Rosa Parks sparked it in 1955.

I went online and read it.

The President’s essay on this historical event is brilliantly written.  As I read it, I compared his observation with my own — as someone who was sitting there at that counter. The President writes:

“In 1960, four young students from North Carolina A&T walked into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at a lunch counter and reignited a movement for social justice that would forever change America.”

The President’s observation connects present day Americans with the students who started the student movement. As students at A&T we experienced segregation every day. In Scott Hall, the dormitory, and in the cafeteria, students often shared their tales of white insults.

The President writes as if he too was there when it happened. He writes with empathy of the four freshmen:

“Inspired by the words and deeds of a young preacher who catalyzed a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, David L. Richmond and Jibreel Khazan (Ezell Blair Jr.) decided that enough was enough.”

“They knew that they would be the subject of ridicule and bigotry upon taking their seats.”

I remember that too. As we walked to the lunch counters, we heard  verbally abusive language aimed at us. Whites yelled and screamed as we passed on our way to Woolworth. Sometimes, they would spit on us or throw bottles.

On the other hand, as black students, ours was a non-violent mission.

“But they also knew,” the President writes, “ what was happening to Greensboro and throughout the country was an affront to America’s founding ideas of freedom, quality and justice for all.”

In his short, succinct essay, the President admires the “quiet dignity” of the simple act of asking for a cup of coffee. “The lessons taught at the five and dime challenged us to consider who we are as a nation and what kind of future we want to build for our children.”

In the sit in, he sees that social justice is achievable. He records how the story has an impact on history. “One year later, [after the sit-in] the Freedom Riders made their brave trek across the South,” he wrote, “ Two summers after that, the same Montgomery preacher … pronounced his dream for America. One year later came the Civil Rights Act, and the next year, the Voting Rights Act, which helped secure for African Americans — and all Americans — a fundamental right to share in the blessings of this country.”

Obama ends with a final salute the Greensboro Four. “To the four young men who courageously sat down to order a cup of coffee 50 years ago, and to all who they inspired, I simply say, thank you.”

It is a beautifully written and inspirational piece. His skills as a writer are on display. The editors are preening at the success in kicking off the 50th Anniversary of the Opening of the Museum of International Civil Rights on Feb 1, 2010. ”As always, thanks, Mr. President, for taking the time to write.”

It was very cool of him.

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at:
stagolee@me.com