Greensboro sit down becomes living history at Smithsonian

Azania Dungee in a performance of "Join the Student Sit-Ins" at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Azania Dungee in a performance of "Join the Student Sit-Ins" at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Kitty Felde/KPCC

Fifty years ago today, a group of African American students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter. That simple act of civil disobedience ranks among the most profound in the civil rights movement.

Today — decades later — how do you teach students about such an important moment in the civil rights movement? It happens every day at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The shiny chrome lunch counter from the old Woolworth’s store in Greensboro is enshrined today behind plexiglass in the Smithsonian. Every day, thousands of visitors walk past the counter’s turquoise and pink seats.

On this particular afternoon, there’s a young woman in a 1960’s dress marching in front of the exhibit. She carries a sign that reads “Woolworth’s Desegregate Now!” She turns to the crowd of museum visitors and asks a simple question. The response is muted. So she asks again.

"Do you all think it’s all right for a lunch counter to serve one person and not another based on the color of their skin?" she asks. The crowd roars back "no!"

"All right," she nods, "that’s better."

Actress Azania Dungee plays the part of a North Carolina college student inspired by the Feb. 1, 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. For the next six months, students, church members, and civil rights activists spent all day at that segregated lunch counter, politely waiting to be served.

Actress Dungee is looking for more volunteers. She tells the crowd, "we’ve been protesting all over the country. Even up north, where the Woolworths don’t segregate. See, a protest can get people thinking. Do I really want to spend money at a place that treats people the way that they do? So protests work, but today we’re going to be using some more aggressive tactics."

She starts training the crowd in non-violence techniques, throwing in advice like “dress nicely,” wear shoes you can run in, and “don’t wear dangly earrings that could get pulled.” Four members of the audience are brought downstage where they are taught to ignore the taunts that would likely come their way… or worse.

She shouts at the volunteers. "A milkshake gets poured on your head," she says. "They may start to attack you. What will you do?!?"

What the protestors did was hang in there. It took six months, but the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth’s was finally desegregated. The 20-minute program “Join the Student Sit-Ins” has been a regular feature at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History since the building reopened two years ago. The non-violence training session ends with a song.

Azania Dungee coaxes the crowd, telling them protest singing isn’t like concert singing. "We’re not singing to sound great," she says. "We’re singing to make our country a better place. To make it live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence. To create another birth of freedom. So because of that, everybody sings. No exceptions."

She adds that if you can’t sing, "I mean you really can’t hold a note or carry any kind of tune, then what I want you to do is sing louder."

The crowd laughs. And joins in.

You can “Join the Student Sit-Ins” nearly every day during February at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Or check it out online at http://americanhistory.si.edu.

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