On February 1, 1960, four young men sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ordered coffee and doughnuts. More than fifty years later, this may not seem like a daring act, but it was. First the waitress and then the store manager explained that the lunch counter was reserved for white people and that they could not serve the four freshmen from the nearby Agricultural & Technical College, because they were African American.
The four men– Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Joseph McNeil–refused to leave, and the next day fellow students joined the sit-in. As news of the protest spread, African Americans sat down at segregated lunch counters elsewhere in the South, and picketers demonstrated in front of Woolworth stores in New York City, even though segregation was not practiced at their lunch counters.
Photographs of the sit-ins distributed by the news wire services convey the resolve of the students, the hostile reaction they endured, as well as the impact on lunch counter business. The images helped raise awareness of racial injustice and growing resistance to it. Today they offer a continuing reminder of the many individual acts of courage that made up the Civil Rights movement.
Our pictorial collections document many events of the Civil Rights era. We have digitized quite a few of the images, and hundreds more can be viewed with an on-site visit. Because of rights considerations, many digitized images from the period display only in small size outside Library of Congress buildings, but we also have images that have no known restrictions on publication, with digital images that can be seen in greater detail from anywhere. We have assembled a selection of such images in our reference aid, “The Civil Rights Era in the U.S. News & World Report Photographs Collection: A Select List .”
As we begin African American History Month, we hope that the pictures and many other resources of the Library of Congress offer an opportunity to learn and to reflect.
- View additional images relating to the quest for African American civil rights that display large images outside Library of Congress buildings.
- View a summary of Prints & Photographs Division resources for the study of African American history, with search tips.
- View the African American History Month portal, highlighting resources at the Library of Congress and other institutions.
- Learn more about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in: If you have a chance to visit Washington, D.C., the National Museum of American History has the original lunch counter and offers a performance, where visitors experience what it was like to sit-in at the lunch counter. My children and I attended and found it very powerful. You can also see the performance on YouTube.