In a 90-year-old building in downtown Greensboro, the Woolworth’s lunch counter still looks just as it did when Clarence Henderson quietly defied a racist store policy and helped change the course of American history
The building now houses the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, and the once-bustling diner sits preserved in its original spot. That’s where Henderson joined three other black college students on Feb. 2, 1960, to sit at the sprawling lunch counter designated for white customers only.
The sit-ins at the popular department store helped spark a series of similar protests and counterprotests in Greensboro and across the South. By the end of the summer, the Greensboro diner was desegregated. Successes followed in other cities.
This February marks the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins. Henderson remembers the insults he heard on that day and others. He says it was worth it to “put Jim Crow on trial.”
Today Henderson faces a different kind of trial: “I still get called names by people who think I’m on the wrong side of history now.” In 2016, Henderson wrote an op-ed for The Charlotte Observer criticizing those who equated debates over transgender restroom policies with the civil rights battles he and thousands of others fought over racial prejudice.
Later that year, he publicly supported Donald Trump for president. He’s voted for GOP candidates for years because he opposes abortion and likes the party’s economic policies.
That makes Henderson a minority within a minority. Black voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats since Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Nearly 98 percent backed President Barack Obama in 2008.
Henderson says critics have called him “an Uncle Tom” and “a sellout.” He still believes voters should think for themselves: “When someone tells you how to vote, they’re trying to tell you what to think instead of how to think.”
Voters like Henderson raise an intriguing question: Could Trump get enough support from black voters to make a difference in a tight 2020 election? Could a voting bloc that some pollsters consider unwinnable for Republicans help Trump win a second term?
Past voting patterns and current polls suggest a surge in African American support isn’t likely, but a surge might not be necessary. Moving the needle a few percentage points in key swing states could tip a close contest.
Even that seems unlikely to many pundits, considering some of Trump’s rhetoric. Still, the Trump campaign is working hard to reach black voters and may find unexpected allies in an under-the-radar policy fight.
Jamie Dean is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C.
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