Last week, I began the story of Robert “Pat” Patterson and his role in non-violent civil rights action in Greensboro, North Carolina. Sit-ins were held throughout the South, and the effort integrated lunch counters—at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, and other stores soon after. Robert “Pat” Patterson was right there in the thick of it all. (Sharon)
After the “The Greensboro Four” sat-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960, Patterson and several other students sat-in at the same place the next day. A crowd gathered in the store, many taunting and threatening the protesters. Police stood by, but took no action. The manager had told Woolworth headquarters in Atlanta he would simply let any protestors sit quietly at the lunch counter, believing they would get bored and leave. Woolworth’s management agreed and issued the statement that company policy was “to abide by local custom.”
The store manager did not allow photos to be taken inside the store. He wanted to stay out of the public eye, and with the growing tension over Civil Rights action, had the wherewithal to understand that something like this might eventually happen at his store. Only one photograph was taken on the first day: Jack Moebes, a photographer for the Greensboro Record, took the lone photo of the Four as they left the store.
The movement grew to 60 students on February 3, including some from Bennett College—an all-women, HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)—and from then-segregated Dudley High School. Heckled by other patrons as they studied, protesters sat-in at the counter in shifts, to ensure they occupied all available seats at all times. On February 4, over 300 students arrived to sit-in, including three white supporters from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (today’s UNC-Greensboro). The students took the protest to the basement lunch counter of neighboring S.H. Kress department store. Tensions mounted, but police kept the crowds in check. By February 8 the movement had spread across North Carolina to other HBCU campuses and towns nearby. By the beginning of March, sit-ins were happening throughout the southeast.
Woolworth’s opened its lunch counters on July 25 to four of its own African American employees at the Greensboro location. All Woolworth’s lunch counters were desegregated by 1963.
Patterson is neither haughty nor self-effacing about the part he played in local and national history. He tells his story with the evenness of a participant aware of the moment in history, without aggrandizement. When I spoke with him last December, he told me he basically became a “professional demonstrator” at North Carolina A&T State University, with all the coordinated activity of the movement in those years. Patterson later served as Vice Chairman of the Greensboro Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1963.
Patterson was a young college student in 1960, with an opportunity to change the world in which he lived. Like many of his contemporaries, he made the most of the time he was given. But not always, as I learned from our conversation, through protest and social action. (To be continued.)