Franklin McCain on Feb. 2, 1960, the second day of the Greensboro Woolworth's sit-in. Photo from original by Jack Moebes.
Franklin McCain on Feb. 2, 1960, the second day of the Greensboro Woolworth's sit-in. Photo from original by Jack Moebes.
Franklin McCain on Feb. 2, 1960, the second day of the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-in.
Photo from original by Jack Moebes.

By Steve Lyttle and David Perlmutt,
Originally published by
The Charlotte Observer: Friday, Jan. 10, 2014

Franklin McCain Sr. and three fellow college students became icons of the U.S. civil rights movement in 1960 when they sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro and asked for coffee.

Within a month, sit-ins had spread to hundreds of cities across the country.

McCain, 71, who was born in Union County and lived much of his life in Charlotte, died Thursday night in Greensboro after a brief illness, family members say.

McCain and other members of the Greensboro Four – Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond – conducted the first sit-in on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960, at the F.W. Woolworth store on Elm Street in Greensboro. The next day, about two dozen students joined them.

McCain went on to graduate from N.C. A&T with degrees in chemistry and biology and worked for nearly 35 years as a chemist and sales representative at the Celanese Corporation in Charlotte. But he also remained active in civil rights efforts.

“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 at the F.W. Woolworth store here in Greensboro,” McCain’s 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.”

A portion of the lunch counter from the Woolworth store is now 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.

Making a statement

It was far different on that Monday in 1960, when McCain and the other three students walked a mile from the college campus to the F.W. Woolworth store to make a statement against segregation. They bought a few items – McCain bought toothpaste and a composition book – and asked for receipts.

Then they sat at the whites-only lunch counter.

Their actions followed conversations they had nightly on campus.

In an Observer story 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.

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

As they had planned the previous evening, they entered the store about 3:20 p.m., made their purchases, and then sat at the nearly-empty lunch counter. A white waitress and the store manager told them that they could not be served. McCain said a black woman who cleared the counter told them to order food at the stand-up 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 recalled 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.’ ”

McCain said it taught him never to stereotype anyone.

The four students left the counter shortly before closing time, vowing to return. Soon afterward, the sit-ins spread to Charlotte, Raleigh, Rock Hill and Fayetteville, and then beyond across the South.

The Woolworth store integrated the lunch counter on July 25, 1960. The store closed in 1993, and the museum opened on the same site on Feb. 1, 2010.

Khazan and McNeil are still alive. Richmond died of cancer in 1990.

Active as educator

Although he was born in Union County, Franklin McCain’s family moved to the Washington area a short time later, and he attended school there. He received his bachelors degree from N.C. A&T in 1964 and a year later married Bettye Davis, a Bennett College student who also had participated in the civil rights demonstrations. They remained married until Bettye’s death on Jan. 2, 2013.

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

McCain received an honorary doctorate from N.C. A&T in 1994 and served as chair of the board of trustees and the university. He also served on the boards of Bennett College, North Carolina Central University and the UNC Board of Governors.

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

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

In the 2010 interview with the Observer, McCain said, “That day – Feb. 1, 1960 – was the best day of my life. And just for sitting on some dumb stool. it was a reaffirmation of who I am and what I’m supposed to be.”

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