icrcm_exterior.jpgIt was 50 years ago today that Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph Alfred McNeil and David Richmond -- four freshmen at Agricultural and Technical College, a historically black school in Greensboro, N.C. -- defied Jim Crow segregation by sitting at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in that Southern city and asking to be served.

Refused service and abused by white customers, the students still kept coming back, joined by others, day after day. Their nonviolent act of courage was inspired by others before it and inspired others like it, bringing momentum to a movement that would transform America. Within two months, sit-ins were taking place in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro was desegregated.

Today that same building on Greensboro's Elm Street will host the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, a 30,000-foot archive, museum and teaching center devoted to the international struggle for civil and human rights. The museum's opening is the culmination of an effort that began in 1993, when local Guilford County Commissioner Melvin "Skip" Alston and Greensboro City Councilman Earl Jones established the nonprofit Sit-In Movement Inc. to raise funds to keep the historic Woolworth, since closed, from being turned into a parking lot.

Over the years the project's cost grew into the tens of millions of dollars: At one point a stream was found flowing through the building's foundation, necessitating extensive work. Voters in Greensboro -- a city with a contentious racial past and present -- twice voted down bond referenda to provide public financing for the project. But the museum ultimately did find financial support from the city, as well as from North Carolina, Guilford County, the National Park Service and the Bryan Foundation.

The gala program to celebrate the museum's opening planned for this past Saturday was postponed to Feb. 13 due to heavy snow, which also resulted in the cancellation of Sunday's Celebration of Unity Service. But the museum's grand opening is scheduled to go today on as planned, with original sit-in participant McCain among the speakers. The museum's exhibits aim to help visitors who never experienced legal segregation better understand what Jim Crow looked like, and to educate the public about the movement that toppled it.

"To see those four young men sitting down at that lunch counter on those stools at Woolworth was a source of inspiration," says former civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) in this public service announcement for the museum:

(Photos from the website of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.)