Franklin McCain, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 4:13 pm

Franklin McCain was one of four students who sat down at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on February 1, 1960.

The freshman from North Carolina A&T ignited a sit-in movement in the Jim Crow South that led to other key chapters in the Civil Rights era.

McCain died yesterday at the age of 73.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jeff Tiberii of WUNC has this remembrance.


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An American civil rights pioneer has died. Franklin McCain was one of four teenagers who sat down at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1st, 1960. The freshman from North Carolina A&T ignited a sit-in movement in the Jim Crow South that led to other key moments in the civil rights era. Franklin McCain passed away yesterday in Greensboro. He was 73 years old.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, WUNC's Jeff Tiberii has this remembrance.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: In 1960, Franklin McCain was a product of his environment, an intelligent young man from a middle-class upbringing: confident, defiant and contemplative, as described by friend Joseph McNeil, who was one of those other four teenagers.

JOSEPH MCNEIL: Frank McCain is a mountain of a man who has enormous strength and resolve. He won't be moved easily, but when he commits to something, it's going.

TIBERII: Franklin Eugene McCain was born January 3rd, 1941, in Union County, North Carolina. He spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., lived briefly in Greensboro as a teenager, and graduated from Eastern High School in the nation's capital before returning to the state to attend A&T. There, he met McNeil and two other young men, all of whom believed they could bring about social change.

WILLIAM CHAFE: Change does not happen top-down. Change happens bottom-up.

TIBERII: Duke Professor William Chafe wrote extensively about the sit-in movement and civil rights era. Early in his second semester, McCain, McNeil and friends David Richmond and Ezell Blair, Jr. decided it was time to act. McCain recalled his feelings with NPR decades later.

FRANKLIN MCCAIN: I certainly wasn't afraid, and I wasn't afraid, because I was too angry to be afraid.

TIBERII: The men planned to go into the downtown Greensboro Woolworth's and ask for service at the all-white lunch counter.

MCCAIN: If I were lucky, I would be carted off to jail for a long, long time. And if I were not so lucky, then I would be going back to my campus in a pine box.

TIBERII: On February 1st, 1960, McCain and his classmates walked into the store, purchased some items, and then walked over to the segregated counter.

MCCAIN: Fifteen seconds after I sat on that stool, I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible.

TIBERII: He hadn't even asked for service. When McCain and the others did, they were denied. A manager told them they weren't welcome. A police officer patted his hand with his nightstick. The tension grew, but it never turned violent. As McCain and others continued to sit at the counter, an older white woman who had been observing the scene walked up behind them.

MCCAIN: And she whispered in a calm voice: Boys, I am so proud of you.

TIBERII: McCain was stunned, figuring the woman was upset with their actions.

MCCAIN: What I learned from that little incident was don't you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them.

TIBERII: Woolworth's closed early that afternoon, and the four men returned to campus with empty stomachs and no idea about what they had just started. The next day, another 20 students joined them, and 300 came out by the end of the week. Word of the sit-in spread by newspapers, and demonstrations began in Winston-Salem, Durham, Asheville and Wilmington. Within two months of the initial sit-in, 54 cities in nine different states had movements of their own. Again, Professor Chafe.

CHAFE: There's no way of imagining Birmingham or the march on Washington without the sit-ins. They essentially trigger a civil rights revolution.

TIBERII: Following the initial sit-in, McCain participated in negotiations between student protesters, Woolworth's management, and the Human Relations Commission. The Greensboro lunch counter desegregated six months later. Initially, McCain and the other men were known as the A&T Four, because what they did was viewed as so controversial. In time, the city adopted them as their own, and today, they're more commonly known as the Greensboro Four.

MCCAIN: If there is something that you want to do, and in your heart, you know that it needs to be changed, modified or turned upside-down, go ahead and do it. Don't follow your head. Don't follow your heart. Follow your gut.

TIBERII: McCain's seminal moment came before he turned 20, and his actions were celebrated for the rest of his life. North Carolina A&T honored the men with a statue outside their freshman dormitory, and 50 years after McCain had that feeling of invincibility, a civil rights museum opened where the Woolworth's once operated. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jeff Tiberii.


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