GREENSBORO, N.C. - The four college freshmen walked quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the "whites only" lunch counter - and sparked a wave of civil rights protest that changed America.
Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat near an older white woman on the silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The black students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous act.
Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously planned, down to buying a few school supplies and toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the lunch counter was the only part of the store where their patronage wasn't welcomed.
On Monday, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store. The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.
"The best feeling of my life," McCain said recently, was "sitting on that dumb stool. I felt so at peace and so self-accepted."
They weren't afraid, even though they had no way of knowing how the sit-ins would end. They just knew they were angry and they were ready to change the world.
The protesters they inspired mushroomed, reaching at least 1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated. The demonstrations helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"Greensboro was the pivot that turned the history of America around," says Bill Chafe, Duke University historian and author of "Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom."
"It is my fervent wish, hope and desire that this great edifice . . . will be a grand monument to the struggle of all people who strive for freedom," said Blair - now named Jibreel Khazan. He has worked as a teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and storyteller.
McCain became a research chemist and sales executive, while McNeil retired as a major general from the Air Force Reserves in 2001 and also worked as an investment banker. Richmond died in 1990.
Other sit-ins had occurred before Greensboro, some in Northern and Midwestern cities, but they hadn't caught on the way the one in Greensboro did.
Few people expected a group of young men, then just 17 and 18 years old, to be so determined, McNeil said. They underestimated the students' ability "to take on something difficult and sustain the effort for a long period of time," he said. "We were quite serious, and the issue that we rallied behind was a very serious issue because it represented years of suffering and disrespect and humiliation."
"Our parents and their parents had to endure the onus of racial segregation and all that it did in terms of being disrespectful to human beings and the difficulties it places in so many ways of life, not just public accommodations, but in areas like employment and education. Segregation was an evil kind of thing that needed attention."