It’s become a commonplace to say that the sixties began on February 1, 1960, when four black students from North Carolina Ag and Tech sat down at the lunch counter of a Greensboro Woolworth’s in defiance of segregation.
But the February 1 sit-in wasn’t the first — students and other young activists had been protesting at lunch counters semi-regularly for years by then. What made Greensboro different is the way that it caught on, the way that it spread.
And it started to spread fifty-one years ago today.
There were lunch counter sit-ins in two new North Carolina cities on February 8. In Durham, more than a dozen black students from North Carolina College, joined by four white students from Duke, sat down in a Woolworth’s in that city. When the store closed at noon, they moved on to a Kress, which closed a few minutes later.
In Winston-Salem, the protest that day started small — really small. Carl Matthews, a recent graduate of Winston-Salem Teachers College, sat down on his own at the lunch counter of that city’s Kress store. When word of his action was reported on the radio, some two dozen other young blacks, mostly college and high school students, joined him.
By the end of the summer, one historian estimates, more than a hundred thousand young people had joined protests against lunch-counter discrimination across the United States. The first great social movement of the American sixties was underway.