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Youth trace the walk of the Greensboro Four

United Methodist youth and leaders gather outside the former Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., where four African-American college students led sit-in protests in 1960 at the "whites only" lunch counter. The youth retraced the students' one-mile walk to the downtown store as part of Youth 2007. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Green*
July 26, 2007 | GREENSBORO, N.C. (UMNS)

Ciona Rouse leads the one-mile trek from the campus of North Carolina A&T State University to downtown Greensboro.

United Methodist youth learned about making a difference in the lives of others by walking in the footsteps of four African-American college students whose actions in 1960 helped fuel a movement across the South.

Participants in Youth 2007 traced the path of the Greensboro Four — four male freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University who protested against racial injustice by organizing a sit-in at the "whites only" lunch counter of Woolworth's Department Store on Feb. 1, 1960. While African Americans could shop at the store and use a standup lunch counter, they were not allowed to sit and be served lunch.

Youth 2007 is the largest youth gathering of The United Methodist Church and is held once every four years. About 6,200 young people attended this year's July 11-15 event, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

Greensboro provided the backdrop for many of the Youth 2007 participants to learn about the civil rights movement and the courage of the Greensboro Four.

Groups were bused from the Greensboro Coliseum, which served as the headquarters of Youth 2007, to the campus of North Carolina A&T State University to take a one-mile trek to Woolworth's. Standing in front of "February One," a 10-foot bronze statue memorializing the Greensboro Four on campus, they heard a history lesson about the four young people who "stepped out on faith" to make a difference.

"The American civil rights movement was a pilgrimage," said tour leader Ciona Rouse.

Civil disobedience

The four students were also inspired to action by Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who had been killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till's mother insisted that her son's casket be open at his funeral so that people could view his battered and bloated body. Photographs taken by Jet magazine of Till's unrecognizable face shocked America and led people to take action.

After hatching their plan in a dormitory room of the all-black university, the four students — David Richmond, Franklin McClain, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan) and Joseph McNeil — put on their best clothes and walked to the downtown Woolworth's. They made small purchases and kept their receipts to show they were indeed customers, then sat at the lunch counter and were denied service. Police were unable to arrest them without provocation and the store closed early.

"Pilgrims pray with their feet. We are constantly on a journey, seeking God along the way and seeking those holy moments."
-Ciona Rouse

The protests occurred for nearly six months and the young men continued to walk across the railroad tracks into town, where the sit-ins extended to the Kress 5 & 10 lunch counter a half-block away. As their mission gained attention, they were joined by other students from their school and other area colleges, drawing increasing opposition and taunts from whites. On July 26, 1960, Woolworth's officially integrated its lunch counter.

The sit-ins became a hallmark of the peaceful strategy of the civil rights movement. Coverage by local and national news organizations helped to galvanize sit-in protests in 54 other cities across the United States, eventually leading to the integration of parks, swimming pools, theaters and libraries. It also contributed to calls for equality in housing, health care and education.

More than tourists

Youth participants said they were not merely being tourists as they walked through downtown Greensboro to Woolworth's.

A teen follows footsteps on a sidewalk memorial to the Greensboro Four.

They stopped at various intervals to "notice God and celebrate" and to pay attention to the steps they were taking. They were invited to think about how God can call young people to step out in faith "to demand justice and equality" when the outcome is unclear.

"Pilgrims pray with their feet. We are constantly on a journey, seeking God along the way and seeking those holy moments," said Rouse, an author for the Upper Room, a division of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. She joined Upper Room staff members to unveil the "Way of Pilgrimage," new experiential spiritual formation curriculum for senior high youth and college freshmen from the Upper Room Ministries.

"We can really make a difference if we think about God guiding our steps," said Rouse, adding that injustice is also part of life today.

"As pilgrims today, we are looking at the story of God working in the lives of the Greensboro civil rights movement," Rouse said. "… It is an amazing story. … We are people of story. The biblical story narrates our lives and the course of history narrates our lives in different ways as well."

The journey led to railroad tracks that once segregated the city. Standing in a narrow passageway beneath the track running above the city, the youth were asked to think about the tracks of their own lives — things that separate and divide. The trek also included a stop at the entrance of the Greensboro News & Record, site of the former Greensboro Daily Record newspaper that covered the sit-ins.

Mary Lynne DeToni-Hill (left) and her
mother, Joyce DeToni-Hill, pause for reflection at the Greensboro Four statue.

At the former Woolworth's, which is now an international civil rights museum, the museum director allowed some youth to sit on the lunch stools. The lunch counter itself is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "We thought about today and how we can serve and be served," Rouse said.

Outside the Woolworth's, a series of footprints on a sidewalk plaque retraces the steps of the Greensboro Four. Youths were asked to place their feet on the prints and meditate on what they could do to make the world better for others.

The pilgrimages ended at the Center City Park, where each group debriefed and individuals were encouraged to express themselves. Responses ranged from amazement at what the four students accomplished to personal empowerment about their own potential for inspiring change.

"We are connected to the biblical stories and to one another," said one youth in a large debriefing circle. Another said the pilgrimage allowed her to "see things from a different lens."

Joyce DeToni-Hill of Sterling, Colo., was on the tour with her family. "I was born when these guys did this," she said. "It is interesting how an era can mark you."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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United Methodist Board of Discipleship

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