Fifty-six years ago today four students, now known as the “Greensboro Four,” sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s Department Store in downtown Greensboro and asked to be served. They were refused service, launching a sit-in movement that would spread throughout North Carolina and the South and transform the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.
Several documents available online through the North Carolina Digital Collections show how North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges and other state officials responded to the situation and demonstrate how public opinion was divided over the protests.
The Response from State Officials
The first—a public statement made by state attorney general Malcom B. Seawell on February 10, 1960—argues that though North Carolina did not have a law mandating the segregation of restaurants, businesses could refuse to serve whoever they choose.
Seawell calls the protesters as out-of-state “trouble-makers” and describes their actions as having:
posed and continue to pose a serious threat to the peace and good order in the communities in which they occur…Such trouble-makers are irresponsible, and their actions can only result in irreparable harm being done to racial relations here in North Carolina.
He also argues that the colleges which student protesters attend should work to curb their student actions, a sentiment Hodges later echoed in a phone conversation with a Woolworth’s executive.
Two memos—one laying out the governor’s constitutional authority to deal with the sit-in demonstrations and another describing the actions of governors in other states in similar situations—were immediately followed by a statement Hodges made on March 10 where he expressed his view on the sit-ins, saying:
…I do not think these demonstrations do any good or in the final analysis will even serve to accomplish the objectives of the demonstrators….I have no sympathy whatsoever for any group of people who deliberately engage in activities which any reasonable person can see will result in a breakdown of law and order as well as interference with the normal and proper operation of a private business.
The Public’s View
Four letters sent to Hodges’ office on the sit-ins reflect how divided the state’s citizens were on the issue.
A Burlington couple called on Hodges to close N.C. A&T and save what they viewed as wasted taxpayer money, while a Durham woman wrote that the demonstrations were “disgusting” and said that many of the protesters were “from the North.”
On the other side of the debate, a UNC-Chapel Hill student penned a note to express solidarity with the sit-in demonstrators and an ECU student rebuked the governor for not promoting freedom and free expression for all.
More to Explore
The papers described here are part of a larger Civil Rights digital collection that helps tell the story of the struggle for justice in North Carolina. An online exhibit from the N.C. Museum of History tells that story in another way.