The date was February 1960 in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina. Four black men sat down at a greasy five-and-dime store lunch counter and ordered some pie. After being requested to leave by both the waitress and the manager, the four men continued to stand their ground. An old woman stared them down, finished her coffee, and then headed toward them. The college-age boys expected a beating, verbal abuse, or perhaps another request to get their Negro bodies out the door. What they didn’t anticipate were the words, “I’m proud of you, boys. I only regret that you didn’t do this ten years ago,” coming from the lips of the old woman.
Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair Jr. continued to sit and defy the odds against them. They became the first black people to ever take stools at F.W. Woolworth Company’s Greensboro lunch counter and not leave. They had planned this for months, and they weren’t going to move; they knew that much. What they didn’t know was how the world would move around them.
Since those four men leaped to the next stepping stone in civil rights history, many other black men and women have made their legendary contributions: Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Chisholm, Hattie McDaniel, Mae Jemison, Malcolm X, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and many more.
In honor of all these men and women who decided to take a stand, the month of February has been deemed Black History Month. What began as “Negro History Week” by Carter Woodson in 1926 has turned into a month-long celebration. The purpose of this month is to educate the American people about the African American’s cultural backgrounds and outstanding achievements, to promote awareness of African American history to the general public, and to recognize the central role of African Americans in U.S. history.
President Gerald Ford officially established Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Change is measured in different ways and over different periods of time. It can come over the course of three generations or it can happen over the course of 20 minutes at a lunch counter. African Americans have helped shape who we are as a nation, and have paved the way for future leaders to rise up and take a stand, challenging them to sit down and order a slice of pie instead of walking out the door and just accepting their fate.