Sixty years ago, four college students sat at a lunch counter - and made history

WBTV reporter Steve Crump on documentary projects on Greensboro sit-ins (David T. Foster III)

GREENSBORO, N.C. (Jim Morrill/Charlotte Observer) - Sixty years ago Saturday, four black college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro and ordered coffee.

Their simple act launched a sit-in movement that swept the Jim Crow South and made the four students icons in America’s civil rights history.

Now the event is the heart of two new documentaries by Charlotte journalist Steve Crump, a longtime chronicler of the civil rights years. In many ways they reflect his own personal journey.

The first features the late Franklin McCain, a former Charlottean who led the four N.C. A&T students into the segregated Woolworth on that February day. It debuts Feb. 5 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture.

The other focuses on U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the sit-ins, Freedom Rides and Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.

The men who became known as the Greensboro Four — McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond and Joseph McNeil — started a movement that within weeks would spread to 55 cities in 13 states.

“To me it was one of the turning points in history,” said Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute. “That’s just as remarkable as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. It’s an example of how movements are often started by people dealing with problems right in front of them.”

A portion of Greensboro’s once whites-only lunch counter is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The old downtown Woolworth is now the site of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which will mark the occasion with its annual gala.

On the N.C. A&T campus, the four men are commemorated in a 15-foot bronze statue.

In Greensboro, it took almost six months for Woolworth to finally desegregate its lunch counter. But the galvanizing effect of the Greensboro Four happened fast.

Not only was it followed by a wave of sit-ins, but 10 weeks later fueled the start in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which would become a driving force of the civil rights movement throughout the South. John Lewis became its chairman in 1963, the year it organized the March on Washington, where a quarter-million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In the documentary, Lewis says he was inspired by the Greensboro Four while a student at Nashville’s Fisk University.

“We, too, were going to start sitting-in,” he recalled. “And we kept sitting-in.”

In December, Lewis, 79, announced that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Crump alluded to it at the end of his documentary.

“He now faces a new challenge,” Crump said. “It is clearly a very private and personal fight for an individual who’s left a remarkable and stellar legacy.”

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

Crump, 62, has faced his own fight.

He’s battled colon cancer for more than a year, first privately and then more publicly. He continues to undergo chemotherapy and wrote the scripts for the documentaries from a hospital bed set up at his home.

For Crump, the stories he tells in these and other documentaries hit close to home.

“My dad came home from the (Korean) war. He has to ride in the back of a bus, didn’t have the right to vote and couldn’t sit down at a lunch counter,” Crump said in a recent interview in an empty studio at WBTV. “I didn’t have the opportunity to sit-in. I probably would have.”

To him there’s a straight line from that winter day in Greensboro to a historic photograph in the John Lewis documentary: President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“As a result of the action these courageous students took, the impact was changing laws regarding segregation and redefining public policy,” Crump said.

Both documentaries feature Crump’s archival interviews with McCain, who died in 2014, and Charles Jones, a civil rights activist from Charlotte who died in January. Crump was a friend of each. He was a pallbearer for McCain and spoke at Jones’ funeral.

“Steve is an institution, especially in the black community,” said Glenn Burkins, publisher of Qcitymetro, an online news site aimed at African Americans.

“So often our stories don’t get told and when they are told they aren’t told by us. What Steve has done is turn that narrative on its head. He’s an African American newsman, journalist (and) story-teller who is telling our story. And that mean a lot.”

Some of those stories are frequently overlooked.

“Often we assume that history is what’s in the history books,” said historian Tom Hanchett. “History is what we create in our community. The civil rights movement, as much as we talk about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, was bubbling in every African American community in the United States.”

Crump said the prospect of his own mortality has given new resonance to his documentaries and the movement they chronicle.

“If you use the time you have left to inspire and make people think and to bring about change,” he said, “hopefully it’s time well spent.”

The Franklin McCain documentary will debut Feb. 5 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center. It airs on WBTV Bounce 7 p.m. Feb. 20.

The John Lewis documentary will air on WBTV Bounce 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and on WBTV 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21.