American citizens have a long history of civil protest and disobedience, and one of the most prolific times was at the height of racial segregation. Yes, Americans once lynched blacks and it is a shameful part of our history which few forget, including me. It was shortly over 56 years ago, on 1 February 1960, that four black university students staged a sit-in at a local diner in Greensboro, North Carolina, by taking their seats at a whites-only lunch counter. This sit-in is often regarded as the spark that fueled the civil rights movement in the early 1960's, when ordinary black citizens began to protest unequal treatment and demand change.
The four men were all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. They planned the protest from their dorm room, simply because "we'd had enough...it was time to wake up and change the situation." Tired of being treated like second class citizens, they walked down the street, sat down and demanded to be served. They promised each other they would repeat the behavior daily until a plate of food was placed in front of them, no matter how long it took. There were reports that a black waitress admonished them, and two old white ladies stood and clapped, encouraging them along. The sit-in grew quickly, and other black students from local universities joined, as well as sympathetic white students who supported their cause. The men encountered resistance from KKK members who showed up and threw burning piles of newspapers under a counter seat. Yet the men were not deterred and the protest remained peaceful for the most part. Because of the swelling crowds and coverage by local media, Woolworth's was forced to close the lunch counter only a week after the four young men first arrived.
As the sit-ins continued, local citizens began boycotting the department store in which the diner was located. Their sales dropped by a third, and the owners abandoned their segregation policies less than three months after the black men first took their seats at the whites-only counter. On 25 July 1960, the store manager asked three black employees to change out of their waitress clothes, sit at the counter, and order a meal at the former "whites-only" counter. They were the first ordinary black customers to be served at a Woolworth's department store.
I've noticed many times that my Russian readers call me naive for thinking an individual can actually make an impact and effect change in a country, or something smaller like a local neighborhood and community. Yet these four young men prove it is possible. They are just a small representative example of the ordinary citizens who staged massive sit-ins in the 60's, 100's of thousands of people, whites, blacks, all protesting and marching for change that was eventually enacted and made into law during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's - 1960's. The change came through Supreme Court decisions, like Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, which legally ended segregation in American public schools, and ultimately the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned all segregation and work force discrimination in the USA. Of course, placing a law on the books and implementing it are two different things. It takes many decades for societal perceptions, inequalities and imbalances to truly shift. Even now, there are tons of problems with race relations in the U.S., but to say that we came a long way in a very short amount of time is an understatement in my view. And all of it was a result of action by ordinary citizens who demanded change and accountability at the local and Federal level.
Last December, I visited Birmingham, Alabama, the hotbed for the civil rights movement, and stomping grounds for famous leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. I was there with my Russian friend, who is very smart, but knew little about the U.S. civil rights movement, or the events that took place during this time. I wonder if the history of this era was taught in Soviet times, or in modern day Russian schools? It seems most Russians know only that "we lynched blacks," and nothing more. During my stay in Birmingham, I visited the Civil Right Museum in the city, which is really remarkable. A living and breathing embodiment of the movement, told through art, photos and actual relics from the era, including burned buses that were torched en route to some of the marches and sit-ins. If it is of interest to readers, I can write a report about this city and explain more about the civil rights movement, and the changes in U.S. law and policy that came about as a result. Yes, I also visited Ferguson, Missouri last year, but never wrote a report about the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot by a local police officer. I've seen it with my own eyes.
These men, known as the "Greensboro Four," went on to accomplish great things. One became a chemist, one a counselor, one a stock broker and the other a lawyer. Their legacies all began with a simple walk to a local store for lunch...
I've never really seen any type of protest like this by Russians. Are there examples? I think the thought of protest isn't inherent in Russian mentality - most are taught to accept and obey, that suffering is ordinary, and even a badge of honor. To demand change, or hold leaders accountable, seems completely unrealistic and pointless. Of course, there are vocal political opponents and media, etc., but I'm speaking about ordinary citizens. This civil disobedience is ongoing in the U.S. at this moment, with a sit-in by local Oregon militia men. I'm sure you've read about it in the press, if not look here.
Do you think ordinary people can really impact change in your country? I think the answer is entirely dependent on the country in which you sit...in the U.S., I still believe it is possible. Call me naive if you wish...:) I'd rather be naive and hopeful than beaten down and complacent with policies to which I'm strongly opposed.