Sitting at that Woolworth's counter, four young men stoked the flames of freedom.

Sitting at that Woolworth

written by Rebecca Cerese

The many powerful gender messages sent via peers, the media and popular culture offer a very aggressive, one-sided view of manhood. In my opinion these messages help to perpetuate the violence that pervades our society, and discourages men from allowing themselves to feel real emotion, because they don’t want be perceived as being “feminine,” as being weak. That is why projects like the Masculinity Project are so important.  They engage boys and men to question traditional views and expand and broaden the definition of what it means to be a man.

One of the things that excited me most about telling the story of the civil rights sit-ins in Greensboro was being able to present an alternative view of manhood – one where strength is shown through non-violent action. This paradigm has just about been lost in our modern culture.  That is why I was thrilled that the Masculinity Project wanted to include excerpts from my film, “February One – The Story of the Greensboro Four”; the film offers a powerful historical example of what strength and dignity, minus violence, can accomplish.

“February One” tells the story of four college freshmen from A&T University who decided to challenge the demeaning segregated public accommodation laws that were in place all over the South. Even though they studied hard, treated people with respect, and were upstanding citizens, in their segregated world, the Greensboro Four were treated as being less than human.  One of the Four, Franklin McCain often told me that the shackles of segregation made him feel emasculated. When he and his three friends, Joe McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr. sat down at the “white’s only” lunch counter on February 1, 1960, they were doing so to take back the manhood that had been stripped from them.

These four and the hundreds who joined them in Greensboro, and the thousands who joined them across the state and the country, didn’t lash out; instead, they chose the path of dignity, control and strength. They fought back with the powerful weapon of non-violence, even in the face of confrontational aggression. I realize it might be hard for us today to truly understand the danger these four men faced. It’s easy to trivialize their act, to think that there’s nothing hard about sitting at a lunch counter. But those were different times: If an African American broke one of the rules of segregation, the consequences could be as severe as death. In those days, when those four men sat down in the space where they were told they didn’t belong, they were risking it all.

Working on this film made me think long and hard about violence and non-violence.  One of the conclusions I have come to is this: I believe that violence actually represents weakness. It is easy to give in to our base instinct; it is easy to lash out, especially when we are being provoked. It is much more difficult to face the anger, violence and aggression that exist inside all of us, and to push back those intense emotions, especially when they threaten to overwhelm us. That takes incredible strength. My greatest hope is that all us, both men and women, will work on nurturing that kind of strength in ourselves.

Maybe, then, we could have a more peaceful world.