By BARBARA RANSBY
KNIGHT RIDDER /TRIBUNE
Feb. 1, 1960, is a watershed in the history of the modern civil rights movement. Forty-five years ago on this date, a handful of black students decided to disrupt business-as-usual. They marched, ever so respectfully, into a local drugstore in Greensboro, N.C., and sat at the lunch-counter designated -- by custom and law -- for whites only.
There was no violence in Greensboro, but the students' quiet actions sparked a wave of similar protests throughout the South, and a new phase of struggle for racial justice in America was born.
In dozens of cities, from Nashville, Tenn., to Atlanta, young people, mostly black, but some white, began to put their bodies on the line. They were confronting the century-long practice of Jim Crow, which was designed not simply to separate the races but to subordinate blacks to whites.
In some cases, angry mobs taunted these students, who had hot coffee poured on them and cigarettes gouged into their backs. They were cursed and spat upon as local racists expressed their rage at the audacity of these young people.
But the students' bravery changed official policies on segregation and ultimately erased formal segregation from the social landscape.
The sit-ins came five years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which catapulted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence. It was not the beginning of what we now term the civil rights movement, but it was a sharp acceleration in the pace and intensity of that movement. Why?
Because young people got in motion with greater determination than ever before, and many of their elders supported them.
Because they would not accept an unjust status quo as normal or routine. The power of their convictions was able to move the mountain of racism.
A few months after the lunch-counter sit-ins began, veteran activist Ella Baker helped to convene a meeting that led to the formation of a new democratic, youth-led, activist-oriented organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Young activists redoubled their efforts. They went into new communities and helped to revitalize local opposition to segregation.
They participated in the historic freedom rides in 1961, and suffered violent attacks and jailings. Some left school to work as full-time organizers, and in the summer of 1964, they recruited hundreds of students from across the country to participate in voter registration efforts.
This was at a time when local activists were being harassed, beaten and even killed for such political actions. Some of these young people suffered the same fate. Still, the interracial organization persevered. It focused on the needs and priorities of the most aggrieved sector of the populace, the black poor, most of whom were wholly excluded from the electoral process and highly exploited in the economic arena.
SNCC did not erase American racism, but it dealt it a serious blow. It was instrumental in the passage of civil rights legislation, and it nourished many progressive organizations.
It also produced some amazing work and some amazing people. NAACP leader Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former Howard University President Joyce Ladner, cultural historian and performance artist Bernice Johnson Reagon and too many more to name.
Two members of that SNCC family passed away recently: writer and filmmaker Joanne Grant and lifelong activist and author James Forman. In different ways, they both were profoundly influenced by the student wing of the civil rights movement.
To no small degree, the students of Greensboro led the way. America is a better place for them.
X Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.