The sight of the ‘Whites’ and ‘Coloreds’ doors and the looks of hatred and disgust in some people’s eyes was once commonplace for many blacks in the Jim Crow south.

For Joseph McNeil, sitting at a whites only lunch counter with his three friends at F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, NC in 1960, and asking to be served was something that needed to be done. “We made up our mind that it was time to do something to get rid of segregation, and this was our way of doing that,” said McNeil. “We were fed up.”

McNeil and his three friends, ‘The A&T Four’ who later became known as the ‘Greensboro Four,’ were all freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College at the time they staged the sit-in at Woolworth’s. Their decision to sit down in the name of equality was one of the first sparks in the civil rights movement.

“What became obvious after the first day is that we needed a lot of help…and others came forward in large numbers,” said McNeil. Two days after their first sit-in, more than 60 students joined them, sitting in every available seat at the long counter throughout the day. By the week’s end, thousands became involved in supporting and participating in the daily sit-ins.

News of this act of defiance spread, and in less than two weeks, young protesters all over the South staged their own sit-ins at segregated facilities. Young people of different ethnicities from all over the country joined the fight for integration, creating what was arguably one of the largest non-violent movements in U.S. history.

“One could see the domino affect of this sit-in,” said Dr. Russell Adams,
Professor Emeritus of African-American studies at Howard University. “They had no jobs to lose…they did things older folks could not do — it was very important for the overall movement.”

Museum plans

Fast-forward to 1993. Melvin ‘Skip’ Alston and Earl Jones, both elected community officials in North Carolina, found out there were plans to turn the historic Greensboro Woolworth building into a parking lot. They decided to save a piece of civil rights history, so they bought the building with plans to create a museum.

“A lot of people had a lot of pride about that historical date,” said Alston, in reference to the Greensboro Four’s first sit-in. “And then reading about Martin Luther King, Jr., listening to some of his speeches, when he said, ‘When the students started sitting in, in Greensboro, North Carolina, that was the start of the civil rights movement,’ that made [the sit-in] even that much more significant.”

On February 1, 2010, 50 years to the day of the Greensboro four’s first sit-in, the memories and experiences of these four men and other prominent voices from civil rights movements all over the world will be on display in the newly renovated Woolworth’s building. The $23 million International Civil Rights Museum, currently in the final stages of construction, will feature the original ‘whites-only’ lunch counter from Woolworth, along with interactive features and artifacts, all which museum representatives say will take you on through the civil rights movement in the U.S. and all over the world. Civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Benjamin Hooks are among the group that served as consultants during the museum’s development.

The timing of the museum’s opening is significant in itself. It’s set to open during black history month, and just over one year since the inauguration of the first African-American President. Amelia Parker, executive director of ICRM, called it “a fortuitous act of timing,” because like many other civil rights museums, exhibits and memorials, this one was not easy to get off the ground.

“If you look at other museums like ours, many of them have taken 15 to 17 years from conceptualization to realization…the challenge is monumental,” said Parker.

A new kind of struggle

While the ICRM is preparing for its grand opening, other organizations are continuing their efforts to preserve moments of African-American history. The U.S. National Slavery Museum has been trying for several years to make use of the 38-acre property it bought in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The idea for the museum is said to be from former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia’s first African-American governor, who is the grandson of slaves. Over a dozen years later, the reportedly $200 million museum has yet to confirm a solid opening date. Though the museum had a groundbreaking ceremony years ago, stalled fundraising and high property taxes have left the museum’s future in murky waters.

More than 13 years after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a joint resolution to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed the building permit last month, allowing construction on the National Mall. Meanwhile, fundraising efforts are on going to raise the remaining $20 million needed to complete the $120 million project.

Perfect timing or coincidence?

The number of civil rights museums, memorials and exhibits seems to have grown in the past few years. Aside from the museums and memorials listed above, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is set to open in 2015 in D.C. And the Lynchburg News Advance reports that one Virginia resident is lobbying for a two-story, four-room slave cabin to be preserved.

During a time when minorities have broken barriers, the question of timing arises — does the current rise of the minority in American society signify the end of a fight for civil equality?

Not so, according to McNeil. “There’s still pockets of discrimination, in terms of jobs and housing,” said McNeil. “It’s something that I think will be an ongoing thing for not only our lifetime but lifetimes to come. We just need to stay engaged.”