For 11 years, Ralph would approach students and members of the NAACP about breaking the segregated barriers of restaurants, and for 11 years he was told that his idea was too radical.

In a small southern city, on a tree-lined street in the heart of downtown sits a monument to a disturbing past in the United States of America. A special and inspiring part of that past is the role a Syrian immigrant and businessman played in helping to undo legal segregation in America. Ironically, a man who helped Blacks gain greater rights was only allowed into the country because he laid claim to Whiteness.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, a teaching facility, and archival center, celebrates the 1960 Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins and their impact on the civil rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T college students, sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and politely asked for service. That request served as a spark for eventual court-ordered desegregation in America. The original lunch counter sits in the museum today.

The four young men who sat-in were influenced by local merchant Ralph Johns.

In the 1880s, the first wave of Syrian immigrants began to arrive in the United States. Ralph Johns’ parents were among those who fled upheaval after the opening of the Suez Canal and the colonial intervention of the French. Ralph fashioned himself into somewhat of a Renaissance man: he was a football player who joined the film industry in the 1930s, joined the Army Air Force in the 1940s, and after discharge became a clothier in Greensboro. He set up shop on East Market Street, in a predominately Black section of town, and was disturbed by the system of segregation that permeated life in the South.

He often spoke about his pangs of conscience and his heartbreak at watching what he called “indignity heaped on a human being of another color than white.”

Syrians were initially denied citizenship in America via naturalization because they were not “white Europeans.” The Syrian Society for National Defense challenged the immigration rulings in court, essentially arguing that they fall into one of the classes accorded the privilege of citizenship: free white persons. Hence, Syrians (and by extension today all Arabs) are considered white in the United States.

In 1948, Ralph Johns became the first non-Black person to join the local chapter of the NAACP (eventually becoming vice president of the chapter). He hired Black employees to work at his business and challenged the status quo by placing signs in his store window that read “God Hates Segregation” and “Special This Week: Love Thy Neighbor.”

For 11 years, Ralph would approach students and members of the NAACP about breaking the segregated barriers of restaurants, and for 11 years he was told that his idea was too radical. From 1949 to 1960, he could not get one person to buy into the idea. In December 1959, Joseph McNeil, a freshman at A&T, was in his clothing store shopping for shoes and Ralph asked his old familiar question, “Joe McNeil, you got any guts?” Joe asked what he meant, and Ralph explained his idea.

Ralph Johns thought 4 or 5 students should go to Woolworth’s and purchase items, ensuring that they had a receipt, then they should sit down at the counter for something to eat. The waitress would advise that Woolworth’s does not serve Negroes, he explained, but the receipts from the other counters would prove that claim false. He thought the police would be called, but the students should call him, and he would send a reporter and a photographer from the Greensboro Record to report the story. This was the strategy that he thought would upend segregation. Joseph McNeil listened and left the store. He returned on February 1, 1960, with three other freshmen: Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond now known as The A&T Four. That day was the beginning of the Sit-in Movement that swept through America and internationally into the continent of Africa.

With the help of Ralph Johns, the A&T Four composed a letter to Woolworth’s president calling for the desegregation of his company, highlighting the fact that the retailer would accept Black money without discrimination when Blacks purchased clothing and goods, but would not serve them at lunch counters.

In July of 1960, all Woolworth stores were desegregated. Joseph McNeil once noted that Ralph Johns involvement “was far greater than any other merchant.”

For years after, as others (including Jesse Jackson) fought for the desegregation of ALL public places in Greensboro and the South, Ralph continued to counsel and post bail. By his own account, he weathered over 25 bomb threats and multiple beatings.  

For his efforts, Ralph Johns is considered a famous Arab American who played an instrumental role in the Civil Rights Movement.

And without laying a claim to whiteness, he might never have played a role at all.


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