More Than a Hamburger: A Brief Reflection on the “Greensboro Four” & the Unfinished Work of Dismantling Racial Capitalism

On February 1st. 1960 four North Carolina A&T students sat-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, NC.

The resistance of Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil against U.S. Apartheid sent shockwaves throughout the nation. It helped to sparked what might be described as a leaderful Black youth-led movement. Though their courageous defiance of white supremacist Jim Crow laws is universally celebrated in our times, it is only partially understood.

We generally speak of Jim Crow segregation as solely being about where certain bodies could and could not go. We zoom in on “whites only” public accommodations like bathrooms, movie theaters, fairs, buses, schools, and lunch counter cafes. While this focus is necessary, it masks a critical aspect of what the white power structure was up to. The system of Jim Crow was not simply about where people could and couldn’t go, it was about where ***resources needed for human flourishing went and where they didn’t. Jim Crow was a racist system of apartheid economics that enabled accumulation for white America and deprivation for Black America. South Africans, attempting to analyze their particular apartheid context called it “racial capitalism.” Racial capitalism was/is an anti-Black and anti-Indigenous system of economic exploitation and domination upheld by state and vigilante violence & terror.

In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

“Capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it.”

The Greensboro Four, the sit-in movement, and the best of the broader mid 20th century Black freedom struggle must be understood as a struggle against racial capitalism. Admittedly, this is a much more dangerous and threatening way to talk about it—hence it is avoided in our schools and in most public discourse. This avoidance can even be found amongst celebrated Black political pundits and best-selling “anti-racist” authors.

However, when you study the history closely and honestly, this is what you find.

You find Ella Baker—mother of the civil rights movement—saying in June of 1960 that the struggle was “for something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” Lunch counters were sites of dramatization for a broader, more radical struggle. Baker communicated that Black youth and their white accomplices were carried along by a vision “to rid America of the scourge” of racial and economic oppression “in every aspect of life.” In fact, she placed these localized struggles in an international/global context. According to Baker, the students felt that they had a “destined date with freedom” that had implications for the “whole world.” A world in bondage to racial capitalist colonial oppression. Some years later, Ella spoke the following relevant words to a crowd in the colonized land of Puerto Rico:

“You have to go back, and reach out to your neighbors who don’t speak to you, and you have to reach out to your friends, who think they are making it good, and get them to understand that they, as well as you, and I, cannot be free in America — or anywhere else, where there is capitalism and imperialism!”

As we stand in the afterlives of both chattel slavery and Jim Crow, may we not only remember the courage of the Greensboro Four—may we EMBODY it!

Generations to come are counting on us to disrupt the deadly status quo.

written by Terrance Hawkins

Siblings stand in front of statue honoring the Greensboro Four on the campus of NC A&T in Greensboro, NC

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