NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — It’s one thing to read about history in class, but students at A.J. Gomes Elementary School in New Bedford had the opportunity Wednesday to meet a key player in the history of civil rights in the United States.
Sixty years ago this week — Feb. 1, 1960, to be precise — Jibreel Khazan and three friends became known as the “Greensboro Four.” They sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where the store’s policy was that service would be refused at the counter if you weren’t white.
They waited patiently to be served, and between them and other friends, they kept coming back daily for about six months — until the business changed its policy.
Today, Khazan lives in New Bedford, and the city honored him Wednesday, with Gomes students showing projects based on their studies of the civil rights movement and Mayor Jon Mitchell reading a proclamation in tribute to the stand taken by Khazan and his friends.
Khazan said he was overwhelmed by all the work the students had done studying his life.
“I am gasping for breath!” he exclaimed. “This is totally…I didn’t expect this.”
The young men were punched, spit on, and called nearly every racial slur, but are credited with creating monumental change in the civil rights movement.
More students joined over time, and their stand went viral — in newspapers and on radio and television — inspiring people in other cities to challenge segregation at lunch counters.
“There were children as young as 10 and 11 years old who joined us,” Khazan recalled.
Plenty of the students at Wednesday’s assembly were about the same age.
After presenting their projects, the students presented Khazan with a t-shirt that had the 60-year-old image of four students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter printed on the front.
Khazan recalled, “there was a song that we sang during the freedom movement that says: ‘We woke up this morning with our mind set on freedom.'” He then led the gathered students and parents in singing a brief call-and-response as freedom became top-of-mind for a new generation, with the kids at Gomes observing how far our country has come and how much work still lies ahead.