Politics & Government
10:17 am
Fri January 10, 2014

Franklin McCain Dies - Helped Start Sit-In Movement At Greensboro Lunch Counter

Joseph McNeil (from left), Franklin McCain, Billy Smith and Clarence Henderson sit in protest at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth during the second day of peaceful protest, Feb. 2, 1960.
Credit Jack Moebes/Corbis

A Civil Rights pioneer has died. Franklin McCain was one of four teenagers who sat down at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960.

"I certainly wasn't afraid. And I wasn't afraid because I was too angry to be afraid. 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." - Franklin McCain, interview on NPR

The freshmen 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.

Franklin Eugene McCain was born January 3, 1941 in Union County, NC. 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 capitol before returning to the state to attend North Carolina A&T. There he met Joseph McNeil and two other young men, all of whom believed they could bring about social change.

Remembering The Sit-In

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

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.

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 night stick. The tension grew but it never turned violent.

As McCain and the others continued to sit at the counter, an older white woman who had been observing the scene walked up behind him:

And she whispered in a calm voice, 'boys, I'm so proud of you'.

McCain says he was stunned:

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.

Woolworth's closed early 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-ins spread by newspapers and demonstrations began in Winston-Salem, Durham, Asheville and Wilmington; within 2 months of the initial sit-in, 54 cities in nine different states had movements of their own.

The Greensboro lunch counter desegregated six months later.

Left to right: David “Chip” Richmond (son of the late David L. Richmond), Franklin McCain Sr. '63, Jibreel Khazan '63 & Joseph A. McNeil '63, standing in front of the statue commemorating the A&T Four.
Credit Photo courtesy of North Carolina A&T State University Relations

Later Years

Franklin McCain graduated from A&T with a degree in chemistry and biology. He married, had three sons and settled in Charlotte. McCain spent more than three decades working as a chemist.

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.

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 Woolworths once operated.

Read Jessica Jones' reporter's notebook and listen to the audio story, "3 of the Greensboro 4 In Their Own Words."

How did that Woolworth's Lunch Counter become a museum? Listen to this story. Jessica Jones etails how the International Civil Rights Center & Museum happened to open on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in.

Also, here's an interactive timeline: "Sparking a Revolution By Sitting Down."

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