In February, to commemorate Black History Month, the Smithsonian Channel, Comcast and the National Museum of American History hosted an essay contest for high school students. Participants were asked to watch “Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4,” a Smithsonian Channel program about the 1960 sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then, they had to answer one of three questions for the chance to win an iPad 2. More than 200 students entered, but it was 15-year-old Kaleb Harris, a sophomore at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, who won the grand prize.
According to Harris, he wrote his winning essay at his mother’s urging. He was not familiar with the story of the Greensboro sit-in, but he watched the Smithsonian Channel segment and learned about Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jabreel Khazan), the four African-American students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, who defiantly sat down at the whites-only luncheonette. Harris was moved when he visited the National Museum of American History and saw the actual lunch counter where the nonviolent protest was held.
“I honestly don’t know if I could have done what they did back in the day,” says Harris. “I would have liked to have tried, but it might have taken awhile for me to get used to it.”
In his essay, Harris reflects on the Civil Rights movement and what its leaders set out to do. He writes:
Have the goals of the Civil Rights movement been achieved? Yes and no. The Civil Rights Movement was centered on justice and equal treatment for African Americans and other races. Not all of the goals have been reached. The goals of freedom, education and justice have been reached, but there is still racism that is present to this very day.
In fact, Harris recalls a time just last year when he felt that he faced discrimination as an African American. He and his family were driving to California and had stopped at a restaurant in Texas late one evening. When they asked if they could be seated for dinner, the restaurant employees said they were just closing. “We saw a bunch of white people staring at us like we were awkward and out of our territory,” says Harris. “I didn’t like the way that felt.”
At a recent event for area high school students at the National Museum of American History, Joseph McNeil, one of the “Greensboro 4,” announced that Harris was the essay contest winner. The teenager had the opportunity to meet McNeil. “It was inspirational,” says Harris. “Also, it was kind of funny because the first thing he said to me was ‘Wow, that was really good. It sounded like I wrote that myself.’”
McNeil spoke to the group about why he did what he did and the gumption it took to be able to sit down at the segregated lunch counter. For as serious as the address was, McNeil also conveyed a sense of humor. “He talked about how the pie and the coffee wasn’t all that great,” says Harris. The two exchanged email addresses so that they might stay in touch.