Guest Column: A day to remember – February 1, 1960

Neal Q. Herrick

At the North Carolina Convention July 28, 1788, James Iredell placed the responsibility of defending our liberty squarely on the shoulders of the people. “Let them be watchful over their rulers,” Iredell said.

On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, four black students from the A&T College of North Carolina, took Iredell for his word. They challenged their rulers in Washington by sitting down at the Greensboro, N.C. Woolworth’s lunch counter and asking to be served. This courageous act inspired the youth of America to create a vast wave of sit-ins throughout the upper south. These sit-ins re-energized the civil rights movement. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The 24th Amendment, which eliminated poll taxes that discriminated against blacks, was ratified the same year.

The “Greensboro Four” had no organizational backing and received no salaries. They made no speeches to thousands of cheering supporters. Instead, they doggedly returned day after day to ask for service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. They were despised, spit upon and had spaghetti sauce poured on their heads. They played a heroic role in changing America for the better. The city of Greensboro celebrates their courage each year on Feb. 1.

Now, a half-century later, America is faced with another moral crisis. Our federal government has slipped out of our control. Our president is lawlessly invading other nations in an attempt to control and re-shape their governments. Our Congress is abdicating its powers. Our courts are making partisan decisions. Once more, we need to set our government on a moral and humane course.

However, the road to governmental reform does not pass through Congress. It is unrealistic to imagine our federal civil officers enacting by statute or proposing, by amendment, any genuine reform. Neither would you or I if we were in their shoes. If we drew their salaries, enjoyed their benefits and basked in the glory of their lifestyles, it would be madness to give all that up by building a firewall between Congress and big-money campaign donations. The road to governmental reform must lead not through Congress, but through our state legislatures. A national constitutional convention is needed. Should two-thirds of our state legislatures apply for the calling of a reform convention, Congress would have no choice but to comply.

Thousands did not cheer the Greensboro Four when they defended our country’s honor. Now our country is threatened again – this time by a lawless federal government. Should small groups of university students ignite petitioning movements in 34 states, and should these movements lead to a national convention and a “responsive government” amendment, neither would they be cheered. Their satisfaction would come some time in the future when they would enter an airplane, take their seats in economy class and find themselves sitting next to a member of Congress.

Neal Q. Herrick retired from the University of Michigan as a visiting professor. His most recent book, “After Patrick Henry,” was awarded the IPPY gold medal for best book of 2009 in its “freedom fighter” category and the silver medal in Foreword’s competition for the best political science book of 2009.