Hungry for equality

By Barbara Gruener

"Sit-In" CoverFebruary is Black History Month, so celebrate with Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down, Andrea Davis Pinkney’s portrayal of the Greensboro Four of 1960. Four teenage boys – David, Joseph, Franklin, and Ezell – sat quietly at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, waiting for food but obviously being ignored. Peaceful and polite, they weren’t breaking any laws. In fact, they even used their manners when they ordered their “doughnuts with coffee and cream on the side” at a posted Whites-Only restaurant. It wasn’t the waitress’s idea to refuse them; segregation laws kept them from being served.

Sit-ins were significant to the Civil Rights Movement, but many of them resulted in cruel, violent acts. Not this one. These four boys remembered Dr. King’s message: We must meet violence with nonviolence. So they waited patiently at the Woolworth’s counter. “Practicing peace while others showed hatred was tougher than any school test,” Pinkney writes.

The next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, more friends sat in. Still no service. But angry patrons did serve up hot reactions to their peaceful protest. See what happened at the counter and afterward, as the students were arrested and taken to jail. Finally, see how an activist named Ella Baker helped by forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And see the ripple effect and what John F. Kennedy did to further the cause when he “got a taste of SNCC’s integration.”

Use the text to discuss the Fairness pillar. What is the difference between equality and equity? Ask students to debate whether or not things always have to be equal to be fair. Eyeglasses offer a pretty simple way to illustrate this concept: We don’t all need to wear eyeglasses equally in order for life to be fair; I need them so that I can see. It levels the playing field for me. What other examples can your students think of to explain this?

As a bonus for today’s students who might have trouble relating to the concept of segregation, the book includes the ten-step “recipe for integration,” a Civil Rights Timeline, a photograph of the Greensboro Four in Woolworth’s, a more in-depth look at the incident and the times, and book and website resource recommendations.

My son led a sit-in as part of his sixth-grade Social Studies class a few years ago. It was empowering because he felt both listened to and heard. I remember him coming home that day convinced that the Principal was going to make the changes he and his friends had peacefully negotiated.

Use this book as a springboard to talk with your students about the Civil Rights Movement as well as about socially acceptable ways to bring about changes to injustices that they experience in their world. What would a sit-in look like in 2011? Find out what your students care enough about to stand up for or against and protest. Let them plan how to do that effectively and peacefully so that their cause doesn’t cause more problems.

* Searching for more stories with a civil rights theme?  Check out A Taste of Colored Water by Matt Faulkner and Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden. The former targets the injustices of segregation at the water fountain, and the latter tackles the topic as it relates to a library card.

Barbara Gruener is a school counselor at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood, TX, a winner of the 2009 CEP National School of Character Award. For more information on Westwood’s program, visit its website.