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Because he sat down, everything changed

50 years ago, Franklin McCain and 3 friends asked for coffee at a 'whites only' lunch counter in Greensboro.

By David Perlmutt
dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com

This story was originally published on Feb. 1, 2010
Fifty years later, the event that made Charlotte's Franklin McCain an historical figure continues to define his life. Nothing's compared since.

"Not even close," McCain said last week. "Not even the birth of my first son. I told him that, too."

On Feb. 1, 1960, a Monday like today, McCain and three other freshmen at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, walked a mile from campus to the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime on North Elm Street, to make a statement against segregation. They purchased a few items - McCain bought toothpaste and a composition book - and asked for receipts. Then they found the "whites-only" lunch counter and simply sat down.

First McCain and Joseph McNeil, then Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond.

They ordered coffee.

Today, McCain will return to that five-and-dime to take part in the opening dedication of the long-awaited International Civil Rights Center & Museum, following a weekend of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Four's history-altering protests.

All four had arrived at the Greensboro campus of like mind, angry "at the system," said McCain, 69.

"It had betrayed me," McCain said. "My parents and grandparents told me if you believe in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution; if you adopt the Ten Commandments as a code of ethics; if you go to school and work hard and do things for other people - quite often without them knowing it - if you did all those things, you'd have a good chance at success.

"The system still betrayed us. I considered myself as part of the big lie. All four of us did."

McCain and Richmond, who died in 1990 of cancer, were roommates in Scott Hall; Khazan and McNeil lived down the hall. That semester they had three classes together and met nightly to study and talk about injustices.

"The more we talked, the more we felt we were living out the lie," McCain said. "The only thing we'd done is dissected a system, criticized it and our parents and other folk who tried to nurture us.

"We didn't like that feeling."

A plan to 'make a statement'

So the night before, the four decided to sit down at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Back then, F.W. Woolworth had stores around the country and overseas - big enough to bring their protest visibility.

"We were trying to make as big a statement as we could," McCain said. "We wanted to exploit a racial dichotomy in terms of service."

They met at the A&T library after classes the next day to go into town.

They'd show no violence.

The four entered the store about 3:20 p.m. They made their purchases and then took four seats at the near-empty lunch counter.

A white waitress walked by and said nothing. On her way back, they asked for service.

"I can't serve you," she said.

"We've not only made purchases and have the receipts to prove it, we've already been served," McCain said.

"We just don't serve colored people here," she said.

A black woman who cleared the counter told the boys to order at the stand-up counter downstairs. "She treated us like we were the ones creating problems," McCain said.

The manager, Curly Harris, appeared. What do you want?

"We just want to be served," they told him.

"We can't," he said. "It's the custom."

The four tried to reason. Soon a police officer appeared, and began pacing the aisle, slapping his hand with a nightstick. "I was preparing to pick up my brains from the floor," McCain said.

The students went unserved, but didn't budge. The only other lunch patron, an elderly white woman, got up to leave. As she passed, she stopped and placed her right hand on McCain's shoulder and left on McNeil's.

"I was convinced we were going to get an earful," McCain said. "But then she said: 'Boys I am so proud of you. I only wish you'd done this 10 years ago.'

"That taught me never to stereotype anybody."

They left just before closing time, vowing to come back.

That night, the four met with 24 student leaders. They told the leaders what they'd done and asked them to join.

Sit-ins begin springing up

Only McCain and McNeil showed the next day, with two other students they'd recruited. But as the news spread, the sit-ins grew. By the fifth day, 300 protestors took turns at the counter. Lunch counter sit-ins began in other cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Rock Hill.

It took six months of sit-ins for the Greensboro Woolworth to desegregate their lunch counter.

"That day, Feb. 1, 1960, was the best day of my life," said McCain, who became a Celanese chemist and sales executive. "And just for sitting on some dumb stool. It was a reaffirmation of who I am and what I'm supposed to be."

Now that Woolworth, closed since 1993, is a museum. A length of the counter is at the Smithsonian.

McCain thought he'd get kicked out of school. In the 50 years since, he's prodded officials for voting rights, better schools and medical care for minorities. When he saw wrongs, he spoke his mind.

He says he's "still angry," though more optimistic by the election of a black president. "I had a good feeling about where we were headed," he said. "Now I'm not quite sure. I see the same ugly heads rising."

He's a former A&T trustees chair and a current member of the UNC system's Board of Governors. There's a February One Monument on the A&T campus with a bronze statue to the Greensboro Four.

Over the weekend, four new dorms were named for each of them. Recently, McCain took his grandson, Franklin McCain III, to see them.

He looked at the one named for McCain: "He said, 'Granddaddy, that building says Franklin E. McCain, but nothing about senior. I believe I'll claim it for myself.'"

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