BY KELLY BROWN
Forty students and professors gathered last Thursday in a small lecture room in Pound Hall for a trip back in time, to February 1, 1960. The Program on Negotiation presented February One, the fifth film in its yearlong series. The HLS Black Law Students Association and the HLS Program on Human Rights co-sponsored this film event. Professor Christine Desan, Lecturer Bob Bordone, and students Mandy Price and Delisle Warden, Harvard BLSA Co-Presidents, facilitated a vibrant group discussion after the showing.
“This film tells an important, resonant, familiar story,” Professor Desan said. “But the main characters are less known, to many of us.”
February One recounts the experience of four black students from North Carolina A&T University who walked into a Woolworth’s department store in downtown Greensboro, NC, and changed the course of American history. The Greensboro Four — Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil — were college friends who, after mounting frustration with the racial subordinaion long imposed by whites upon blacks in the South, dared to do something about it.
The documentary includes extensive interviews with the three surviving men forty years later; David Richmond passed away in 1990. Khazan, McCain, and McNeil explain how, armed with the teachings of Gandhi, they dressed in their Sunday best and sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter, where they were denied service. Refusing to leave, even when the manager closed the lunch counter, they ignited a peaceful sit-in movement that spanned several months and spread to 54 cities.
Several members of Thursday night’s audience remembered living through the events of early 1960, though one man acknowledged that his memory had disserved him: “I have to admit, I didn’t recall the sit-in movement as having been started by these four men. I thought it had been a more organized, structured action,” he said. “The success of these [sit-ins] becomes all the more amazing when you realize they began with four teenaged boys.”
Over pizza and soda, HLS students and teachers watched reenactments of the events at Greensboro, events that rejuvenated a civil rights movement that had languished after the court-ordered desegregation of schools in the mid-1950s. The four students were joined by hundreds of supporters, both black and white, in the days following February 1, and their actions were widely telecast by a television news industry that was just beginning to blossom. After months of protests, the Woolworth’s management integrated their lunch counters. Department stores and restaurants across the South followed suit.
After the film, Lecturer Bordone encouraged those present to consider what current issues of fundamental inequality individuals might choose to address through nonviolent protest, and why this important mechanism has fallen into disuse.
“[The sit-ins] were a powerful tool for change,” Bordone said. “The work is not done, so why don’t we see more of this type of activism? We should think about how we might use it today.”
February One was produced by Dr. Steven Channing, who won an Emmy for the historical drama Alamance, and Rebecca Cerese. It first aired on PBS in 2003, and premiered nationally in 2005. It was awarded the Human Rights Award at the River Run Film Festival, Winston-Salem, and received the first annual Global Peace Film Festival Award, presented in Orlando, Florida. It was named Best Picture at the 2004 Greensboro, NC Film Festival and was screened at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta last January.