By Jill Smolowe
Updated February 15, 2010 12:00 PM

Fifty years ago, four black college students dared to sit in a whites-only Greensboro luncheonette. Today, the site of their protest is a new civil rights museum

When the four black college freshmen entered the Woolworth’s luncheonette in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, they weren’t thinking about making history. “We were fed up,” Joseph McNeil, now 67, says of rules that denied them both seats and dignity. “This was about our manhood.” As they slid onto swivel stools, they were also keenly aware of the risks at stake. “If we were lucky, we’d go to jail for a long, long time,” says Franklin McCain, 69. “If we weren’t so lucky, there would be a funeral.” Yet nothing could have dissuaded the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students. “We were too damn angry to be afraid,” McCain recalls.

Over the next 90 minutes, store personnel repeatedly refused to serve them, but the students remained outwardly calm. Inwardly, McCain says, he was electrified by “a feeling of cleanliness, of invincibility.” They were not arrested and returned the next day and the next and the next. It wasn’t the first sit-in against segregation, but this one took hold, eventually drawing some 50,000 supporters, black and white. Within six months lunch counters in 14 cities served all, giving momentum to the civil rights movement.

Fifty years later McCain, McNeil and Jibreel Khazan, 68, retook their perches (the fourth student, David Richmond, died in 1990) to mark the opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the old Woolworth’s building. As the friends, who have 11 children and 16 grandkids between them, reminisced, each conveyed a sense of duty about the future and wonder about the past. “I met so many good people, white and black,” McNeil says of the sit-ins. “I learned to have high expectations.”