GREENSBORO — This is the time of the year when civil rights legends often recall with reverence the history-making Greensboro moment that birthed a sit-in movement.
It was 59 years ago this coming Friday when N.C. A&T freshmen Ezell Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), Joseph McNeil and the late David Richmond and Franklin McCain ignited a movement at the segregated downtown F.W. Woolworth department store. Their lunch counter sit-in would sweep the nation and help rid the South of Jim Crow laws.
Stools and a piece of the lunch counter where the young men sat are on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
The story that’s often told is that the four planned to sit at the lunch counter until they were served. But there is a “rest of the story” that reveals some fascinating details.
A battle cry
One of those stories involves the Rev. Martin Luther King, who gave credit to Greensboro for reinvigorating the civil rights movement.
Back in 2002, before speaking at the annual fundraising gala for the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, the late national NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks confirmed King’s account.
“I think Martin Luther King called this the battle cry of the second revolution,’’ Hooks told a crowd of several thousand.
For the Greensboro Four, theirs was an iconic moment in the nation’s history that came during a lull in the civil rights movement. It had been five years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person.
McNeil, 76, now lives in New York and is a retired stockbroker and major general in the Air Force Reserves. He got affirmation directly from King.
A young Aggie who would go on to start diversity programs in the Air Force, McNeil said it was at the start of the sit-ins that state NAACP president Kelly Alexander Sr. and other officials arranged for him and McCain to meet King after he spoke at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham on Feb. 16, 1960.
“He also wanted to let us know that he was behind us 100 percent and we had his support,” McNeil said via telephone last week of their talk with King.
Four college freshmen
Back then, they were just four freshmen who had gravitated to each other at the start of school.
McNeil was the Socrates-quoting quiet guy from Wilmington.
Richmond was the four-letter Dudley High School athlete who, along with Khazan, had grown up in Greensboro.
Khazan, the Boy Scout and Dudley classmate, also had a sense of the dramatic.
McCain was the tall, lanky one who had arrived from Washington seemingly with nerves of steel.
Most people adjusted to their place on the back of the bus or at the back door of the restaurant, the Rev. Jessie Jackson said at McCain’s funeral in 2014. But at that moment it was nonnegotiable: They wanted to be treated like everybody else.
Khazan recalls how on some Saturdays during that period, workers from downtown boutiques gathered up the clothes that black women could not try on in their stores. They took those garments to the home of Eva Miller, who taught art in Greensboro city schools and at Bennett College, and helped establish the African American Atelier. Black women, especially professional women, would pass the word, gather and “shop.” Miller was married to Dr. William Miller, who practiced on Benbow Road.
“Our people always found a way to get what they needed, my grandmother told me,” Khazan, 77, said via phone from New Bedford, Mass., where he lives. “But they were also tired of that.”
So in a room in A&T’s Scott Hall the night before the sit-in, the four students knew all sorts of things could happen. They had seen on TV the dogs and police with billy clubs.
The next afternoon, at the front of the store, the four students bought items.
Holding onto their receipts, they sat down at the lunch counter. At least one of them asked for a piece of pie.
The waitress walked off after telling them, “Negroes weren’t served at the counter,” McCain recalled in a 2010 interview.
But the four sat there, even when a black waitress told them it was people like them who made the race look bad, McCain said.
The students could hear racial slurs over their shoulders.
Years after the sit-in, McCain would often talk of the older white lady who approached them.
He was bracing for her to say something negative.
That didn’t happen.
She told McCain that she was proud of him and his friends — and asked what took them so long.
“She patted us on the back,” McNeil said of the closeness of the woman to him and McCain.
Although people from time to time would claim that this woman was their grandmother or someone they knew, the women’s identity remains unknown.
Before the opening of the civil rights museum, McCain, Khazan and McNeil gazed down at a picture of a woman offered by a man who said his grandmother had long claimed to be the woman that day.
They didn’t think it was her.
Close friends for life
They stood there that day, still close enough to finish each other’s sentences.
In earlier years, the men began meeting every Feb. 1, but their lives were more intertwined with late-night telephone calls and vacation visits.
McNeil named his youngest child, Frank David, in honor of McCain and Richmond. He had intentions of an “Ezell.”
McCain, the chemist and corporate executive who moved to Charlotte and died in 2014, was the godfather to one of Richmond’s children.
Khazan, a motivational speaker and storyteller, had left for New Bedford, Mass. But in later years, he and McCain had children studying at A&T at the same time.
The others tried to get Richmond, named the best math student his first semester at A&T, to leave Greensboro, where he was struggling. He lost a federal job training and counseling position that he was good at when funds ran out.
But Richmond always came back, especially to care for his ailing parents. He died in 1990.
Integration at last
Back in 1960, the sit-ins lasted for months. Woolworth agreed to open the lunch counter under its own terms July 25, allowing its black employees the first bite to eat at the counter.
McCain, who had gone back to the suburbs of Washington during his summer break, bought a plane ticket just to be there.
It was a day that Khazan, who grew up in Warnersville, a Greensboro community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, told anyone who would listen on the playground. He said he would sit at the counter one day, just as he would one day taste the water coming out of the “whites only” fountains, which he at the time suspected tasted like lemonade.
Both Khazan and McNeil plan to be back for events surrounding the observance, including the annual gala thrown by the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Among the people to be honored at the Feb. 9 event are National Urban League president and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial.
“I thank God for all of the people, young and old, black and white, across every diversity, who felt it was part of their duty to stand up and work together,” Khazan said of that day that finally came, “to make a better world for all of us to live in.”