What can the Civil Rights Movement teach us about how everyday people can enact significant social change?
Popular memory of the Civil Rights movement has tended to focus on its leaders, most notably Martin Luther King. But while the leadership of people like King was very important in affecting popular opinion about the movement, the reality is that across the South, thousands of African-Americans of all ages risked much, in some cases even their lives, to put pressure on the Jim Crow system. A wonderful example, though they too became very famous, was the Greensboro Four (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond.) They were four college students at North Carolina A&T who sat at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. In so doing, they attracted the attention of area whites, and quickly the local media.
When the media picked up the story, showing footage of the young men being abused by whites, other protestors quickly launched "sit-ins" of their own, first in North Carolina and then throughout the South. Many lunch counters, including the entire Woolworth's chain, integrated before the end of the year as a result. There are countless examples of this phenomenon throughout the civil rights movement, as average individuals effected change on their own.