Here are four African-American men in their early twenties sitting at a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter on February 1, 1960. Three of them have turned around to look at the camera. They have expressions of wariness and mild interest on their faces. The fourth man looks off to the side, as if distracted. They are engaged in a courageous political act that will have dramatic consequences across a string of Southern U.S. cities.
Their decision to sit down in the “Whites Only” section at the Woolworth’s lunch counter drew a small crowd. By the end of the day, a photographer from the local paper was standing outside, along with a few others drawn by their curiosity.
The four men came back the next day, accompanied by twenty-three other classmates from their local college. And the day after that, the protest continuing, eighty supporters gathered at the restaurant. And the day after that, hundreds.
The next week, sit-ins took place in several Southern cities, from Winston-Salem, Durham, and Charlotte, all the way to Texas. Eventually seventy-thousand students got involved.
This massive event started with a request for a cup of coffee. It fueled the Civil Rights movement across the South and transformed the U.S.
Why did these four men succeed so spectacularly in energizing the movement? Malcolm Gladwell provides an answer in one of his typically provocative essays in the current issue of the New Yorker. They were friends – and connected to lots of other friends and activists in the Civil Rights Movement.
They were not connected in the sense that my kids are connected to hundreds of virtual Facebook “friends.” These four men were real friends. They stayed up late talking and drinking beer in their dorm rooms. They had strong ties to each other. They gave each other the courage to act.
The web is good for creating “weak ties,” relationships that researchers have shown are especially effective at transmitting information, especially innovative concepts. But when the stakes are high and opposition is strong to acting on ideas that question an established order, “strong tie” relationships make the difference.
This is an important lesson for anyone who wants to inspire fundamental change in a school, a church or synagogue, or a corporation. It begins with an idea, but it spreads through relationships — real relationships between real people who know and care about each other.