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Franklin McCain was steadfast on civil rights

Franklin McCain’s place in history was cemented by a bold and courageous act from his youth. Along with three college classmates at North Carolina A&T, he sat down in 1960 at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, defying this country’s long-held segregation laws and sparking a nationwide movement that became seminal to toppling America’s apartheid system.

In 2005, the Congressional Record commemorated the act of courage that ignited the sit-in movement. These words from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas captured the significance: “This simple act forever changed the way black Americans were able to live in society... This small act of defiance inspired others to act in protest and became a tidal wave for change.”

Today, a portion of the lunch counter from the Woolworth store where the four sat is on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. And the site of the store in Greensboro is occupied by the International Civil Rights Museum.

But that historic sit-in was hardly the extent of McCain’s legacy.

After graduating from A&T, he got a job with the Celanese Corp. in Charlotte as a chemist and used the rest of his life to work for social justice.

Just a few months before his death Thursday, he was still engaged – decrying controversial legislation approved by the N.C. General Assembly and advising leaders of Moral Monday protests on strategies to fight back. Calling the changes “heartless” and “unconscionable,” McCain’s advice harkened back to those days of sitting at the lunch counters: “Don’t let up... Hit them in the purse; hit them where it hurts.”

McCain himself never did let up. Though often behind the scenes and out of the public eye, he remained actively involved in the fight for civil and human rights. He spoke out on equal rights, raised money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was chair of the group’s North Carolina regional committee.

Charlotte and this state were the big beneficiaries of McCain’s steadfast engagement. He served on numerous boards, including the board of governors for the University of North Carolina system, and the boards of Bennett College and North Carolina Central University. He chaired the board at his alma mater.

He also chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and co-chaired the local anti-drug group Fighting Back.

A few years ago, McCain was quoted as saying he wasn’t “much for retrospective” because looking back never changed anything. Instead, he continually prodded himself to do more. And he urged others to do the same. “Look around you,” he said in an interview with former Observer columnist Mary Curtis in The Root. “Do you see things that are not just? Do something about it.”

McCain did something, many times over. This community, this state and this nation benefited because he did.

He will be missed.

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