N.C. museum honors sit-in that changed America

At the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, you can see the lunch counter where the 1960 sit-in took place and in the mirrors behind the counter, you can see the scene re-enacted.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Segregation was the law when four black college students sat down to order coffee at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960.

They would not leave when refused service, and returned to the whites-only counter each day until it was formally desegregated months later.

The incident jump-started a decade of civil rights struggles and legislation that changed the nation. The defunct Woolworth chain’s iconic red-and-gold sign still hangs above the old dime store: Two years ago, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum was created in the building on South Elm Street at what is now named February One Place.

The counter stools are still there in the exhibit area. The stark chamber, and the original counter, minus a section acquired by the Smithsonian, sets the stage for a guided tour through a troubled past.

The story of how four students challenged the racial status quo is told through the lunch counter itself: Recessed, overhead lights dim, then five mirrors behind the counter turn into “screens” to show actors re-enacting the story.

On July 25, 1960, you see black Woolworth workers, asked to change into street clothes, sitting at the counter. It’s a dress rehearsal for full integration the next day.

An interactive table helps show the sit-in’s immediate impact. The Greensboro Four were freshmen at N.C. A&T; their ranks were joined by other students. The table has a map with locations of spin-off demonstrations in the South, many launched by students from predominantly black colleges and universities. Touch a city on the map and the tabletop shows news clippings following developments.

The rest of the museum shows what led up to it and what followed. A touch-screen map shows where Freedom Riders were active; tap your Southern city and see how it was covered in the media.

A gallery has TV screens showing footage of events such as the March on Washington and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo displays add faces, black and white, of some involved in the civil rights movement.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro is open for guided tours; extended hours April-September.

Contact 800-748-7116 or www.sitinmovement.org.