You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his face. His name is Robert “Pat” Patterson. His picture was in magazines and newspapers throughout the country as he sat patiently waiting to be served at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. African Americans were struggling for their civil rights in that era, and had won some victories. They had also endured several tragedies. The efforts, victories, and losses of those fighting for civil rights in this country is worthy of remembrance.
Pat Patterson was one of the students from North Carolina A&T State University who took the non-violent struggle to downtown Greensboro. Patterson went on to have a 28-year career with Wachovia Bank. (Wachovia merged with Wells Fargo in 2009.) Patterson worked in the very city where he helped break down racial barriers. Just before Christmas, I had the privilege of talking with Mr. Patterson about his life with Wachovia. During our visit, we discussed his role in the Civil Rights movement, and by the end of the conversation I felt very small compared to this humble man.
In February 1960, the spotlight of history was shone on Greensboro. Jim Crow laws throughout the South barred whites and blacks from social interaction in public areas, from restaurants to businesses to drinking fountains. At the F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, you could get a roast turkey dinner for sixty-five cents—if you were white. On February 1, four young men remembered as “The Greensboro Four” made the short trip from the A&T campus to Woolworth’s downtown. Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr. (Jibreel Khazan) arrived around 4:30 p.m., made purchases, then sat down at the lunch counter and ordered. They were not served, but remained until 5 p.m. when the store closed early.
The following day, though “peaceful,” was anything but uneventful. Patterson and twenty-four other students arrived at 11 a.m., and stayed through till 3 p.m.; they brought their school books to keep themselves focused during the sit-in. They were not served, but were heckled by white patrons at the lunch counter. Reporters from two local newspapers, and a local TV camera crew captured the scene, including one image of Patterson published in JET magazine. Police stood by monitoring the situation, but took no action.
A few days earlier, several students had gathered together to study. The discussion turned to the upcoming sit-in. In a 1979 interview, Patterson described what followed:
Well, as I remember in 1960, about January, there was a group of fellows, and one night we were studying for chemistry—a chemistry examination. The question came up concerning a boycott that was being conducted in Wilmington involving Pepsi-Cola, and one of these fellows came from Wilmington, Joe McNeill. Joe McNeill, and David Richmond, Ezell Blair, and Franklin McCain were very good friends. And at the time, there was about seven or eight of us studying some phases of engineering, and consequently was taking chemistry.
So, I remember the night before the first of February in 1960. We were studying for this examination, and this topic came up, Why didn’t we do something like this in Greensboro? It was decided at that time we would do something, sort of—I thought that it was a kind of half-hearted kind of decision and didn’t think any more about it, really, until the next day. And I was on my way to an electrical engineering class when Joe McNeill and Ezell Blair, Frank McCain and David Richmond passed me going to class. And they indicated that they were going to go downtown, and they were going to sit-in. I said, “Fellows, I really don’t have time to just go downtown to drive around if you are not going to do it.” Well, obviously I didn’t believe they would do it.
But they did do it. And it effected history, it also helped shape Patterson’s life and his career that followed. (To be continued…)