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Civil Rights pioneer Franklin McCain dies

By Jim Morrill, Steve Lyttle and David Perlmutt
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com
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Lynn Hey - 2010 AP FILE PHOTO
Franklin McCain Sr. speaks at an AFL-CIO conference in Greensboro in January 2010. McCain, born in Union County, became a part of history when he and three fellow college students conducted a sit-in at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro in February 1960. McCain died Thursday.

It was a simple act: sitting at a Greensboro lunch counter and asking for coffee.

But with that action on Feb. 1, 1960, Franklin McCain Sr. and three fellow students from N.C. A&T State University became icons of the civil rights era and an inspiration to a generation of Americans.

McCain, who was born in Union County and lived much of his life in Charlotte, died Thursday night in Greensboro after a brief illness. He was 73.

That 1960 visit to the F.W. Woolworth marked the start of the sit-in movement, which spread across the South and gave renewed spark to the struggle for equal rights.

A portion of the once whites-only lunch counter is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. And the old Greensboro store is now the site of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

“To the world, he was a civil rights pioneer who, along with his three classmates, dared to make a difference by starting the sit-in movement,” his oldest son, Franklin Jr., said Friday.

“To us, he was Daddy – a man who deeply loved his family and cherished his friends. We will forever treasure the wonderful memories that we have and be thankful for all that he did for us and for his fellow man.”

Harvey Gantt was a teenager in 1960. The Greensboro sit-ins inspired him and friends in his hometown of Charleston to do the same at lunch counters there.

“(McCain) was one of the iconic figures of the civil rights movement who inspired a lot of people, including me,” said Gantt, who went on to integrate Clemson University and become Charlotte’s first black mayor.

Civil rights historian Taylor Branch said McCain “will endure as a model of citizenship and freedom for this country whose Constitution begins, ‘We the People.’ 

A poster at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum sums up the legacy.

“Before the march on Washington, Montgomery and Birmingham,” it says, “there was the walk to Woolworth’s.”

A seminal moment

On that Monday in 1960, McCain, then 19, and his friends – Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond (who died in 1990) – walked a mile from the A&T campus to Woolworth.

They bought a few items, toothpaste and a composition book for McCain, and asked for receipts. Then they sat at the whites-only counter.

A white waitress and the store manager told them that they could not be served. A black woman who cleared the counter told them to order food at the standup counter downstairs.

An elderly white woman sitting at the counter got up and left. As she passed the four students, she put her right hand on McCain’s shoulder and her left on McNeil’s.

“I was convinced we were going to get an earful,” McCain would recall a half-century later. “But then she said, ‘Boys, I am so proud of you. I only wish you’d done this 10 years ago.’ 

The four students, later known as the Greensboro Four, left the counter shortly before closing time, vowing to return.

Only McCain and McNeil showed the next day, with two other students they’d recruited. But as the news spread, the sit-ins grew.

There had been other sit-ins, in places like Chicago and Wichita, Kan. But none had the galvanizing effect of that February day in 1960.

“It’s an amazingly seminal, influential moment,” said historian David Garrow. “It was emulated and copied in town after town after town. And it’s fascinating to watch how the word spreads from Greensboro to Durham … to Nashville (Tenn.).

“So the real importance of it is as a classic example of a perfectly timed spark that moves scores of other black college students to … start doing exactly the same thing.”

It also led 10 weeks later to the creation in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which would become a driving force of the civil rights movement throughout the South.

In 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in, McCain said he had been told by his parents and grandparents that if they followed the Bill of Rights, Constitution and Ten Commandments, and if they worked hard and helped others, they had a good chance of success. They had arrived on the Greensboro campus “angry at the system,” McCain said.

“The system still betrayed us,” McCain said. “I considered myself as part of the big lie. All four of us did.”

A lifetime of passion

After Greensboro, McCain went on to graduate from N.C. A&T with degrees in chemistry and biology. A year later, he married Bettye Davis, a Bennett College student who also had participated in the civil rights demonstrations. She died Jan. 2, 2013.

They had three sons – Franklin Jr., Wendell and Bert – and six grandchildren.

McCain worked for nearly 35 years as a chemist and sales representative at the Celanese Corp. in Charlotte.

A beefy man with oversized passion and a penchant for candor, he remained active in his community and in civil rights efforts. He once led the Black Political Caucus.

“It’s a huge loss because Franklin has been a community leader for a long time,” said former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Wilhelmina Rembert.

McCain was active in education, too. He chaired the board of trustees at N.C. A&T and served on the boards of Bennett College, N.C. Central University and the UNC Board of Governors.

“His courage and commitment to doing what was right didn’t end at Woolworth’s,” UNC system President Tom Ross said. “That commitment continued throughout his life, and he channeled it in ways that really mattered, particularly in his service and devotion to our university and to higher education.”

A&T Chancellor Harold Martin Sr. said, “The Aggie family mourns the loss of Dr. Franklin McCain. His contributions to this university, the city of Greensboro and the nation as a civil rights leader … (are) without measure.”

‘Keep fighting’

McCain also was active with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and chaired the organization’s North Carolina regional committee.

Retired educator Sarah Stevenson said her friend, whom she called “Little Brother,” never lost his passion for advancing the cause of equal opportunity.

“He said many times that our children are not getting it, and we just need to keep fighting,” Stevenson said.

Civil rights attorney James Ferguson called McCain “a lifetime activist for civil rights.”

“His presence is going to be missed,” Ferguson said, “but his legacy will live on.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said McCain “made his mark on American history in 1960 with a simple act of extraordinary courage.”

“Although social progress can seem slow, McCain never gave up on his native North Carolina,” McCrory added in a statement. “His death follows a life of service to his community and is a true loss for our state.”

In 2010, McCain reflected on his moment in history.

“That day – Feb. 1, 1960 – was the best day of my life, and just for sitting on some dumb stool,” he said. “It was a reaffirmation of who I am and what I’m supposed to be.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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