Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Blog

By Eve Soliman

Winter Intern, 2015

Arab Americans have been invested in the civil rights movement since its beginning stages in the 1950’s, and continue to be a supportive voice in the shared struggle for human rights. The Arab American community has made significant contributions to the civil rights movement by supporting efforts to end segregation and advance equality and justice in the United States.

Ralph Johns may not be well known, but he is an Arab American who played an instrumental role at a critical point in the civil rights movement. Johns is credited with encouraging the famous sit-ins at the lunch counters of the F.W Woolworth retail stores in 1960, which was led by Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond, four students from North Carolina AT&T University that came to be known as the Greensboro Four. Johns’ parents were both Syrian immigrants who moved to Greensboro, NC after serving in the U.S. Air Force in the 1940’s. Johns’ became a local merchant and store owner who spearheaded desegregation policies in his retail store, which was a key trigger for changing the status-quo of racial divides throughout the South.

Closely connected and invested in the African American community who were his customers and friends, Johns was the first non-black person to join his local chapter of the NAACP in 1948, and became the Vice President of the chapter in 1951. Johns’ is credited with giving students that came into his store the idea of staging a sit-in to protest the racism that persisted specifically in their community and across the South. According to former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Johns even offered to pay their bail fees if it came to that.

Johns’ influence was a key factor in the success of the Woolworth sit-ins that started February at the Greensboro F.W. Woolworth location and spread throughout the nation. He helped the Greensboro four compose a letter to the Woolworth President, Robert C. Kirkwood, calling for the desegregation of his company, highlighting the issue that the retailer would accept their money without discrimination when it comes to the sales of clothing but would not serve them at the lunch counters. In July of 1960, all F.W Woolworth stores were desegregated.

Although the desegregation of F.W. Woolworth stores was a significant accomplishment, southern society remained largely segregated and discriminatory, but the momentum caused by Ralph Johns and the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 inspired another wave of action. The discontent inspired AT&T’s student body president, Jesse Jackson to mobilize protestors, launch sit-ins and continue the fight for the desegregation of public places in Greensboro and throughout the nation. Jackson’s sit-ins were aimed at integrating the community and ending socio-economic disenfranchisement of African Americans. These sit-ins launched the beginning of Jackson’s community engagement and campaign for equality, while Johns continued his support by posting bail for several people who were jailed during the S&W cafeteria sit-ins.

Jesse Jackson eventually became the first African American to run for President in 1984. Not just a historic moment for the African American community in their rise to political influence, the Jackson campaign was the first time Arab Americans effectively mobilized and established their voices as a national constituency to be reckoned with. Particularly appealing to ethnic communities, the Jackson inspired millions of people to vote for the first time. In fact, 2.5 million votes for Jackson were cast by “new voters” who gained the right to vote from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Arab Americans like Ralph Johns and those who campaigned for the first black presidential candidate have played important roles in advancing the civil rights movement and continue to fight in the struggle for civil rights and justice that continues today.

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