On the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960, 19-year-old Franklin McCain — accompanied by David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Ezell Blair Jr., three of his North Carolina A&T classmates — walked into an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. After buying a few small items, he and the others sat down at the lunch counter. When they tried to order coffee, the white waitress refused them. “We don’t serve colored here,” she explained, according to a contemporary New York Times account.
“I beg your pardon,” McCain replied. “You just served me at a counter two feet away. Why is it that you serve me at one counter and deny me at another?”
With that polite but firm act of defiance, McCain, who died on Jan. 9 at age 73 in Greensboro, helped change the world. When he and his friends weren’t served, they returned the next day with a dozen more students. Over the weeks and months that followed, the numbers of demonstrators grew. Finally, that July, the local Woolworth’s relented, opening its lunch counter to everyone regardless of race.
But it wasn’t over then. The Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, triggered a wave of similar nonviolent protests in other cities throughout the South, which helped hasten the end of segregation. According to civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the bold action by McCain and his classmates, and the wave of protests elsewhere they triggered, left established civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council scrambling to catch up. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, after witnessing some of the protests, called a colleague and told her, “You must tell Martin [Luther King Jr.] that we must get with this,” adding that the demonstrations might “shake up the world.”
- At North Carolina A&T, McCain studied every night with Blair, Richmond and McNeil, who lived in his dormitory. The four often discussed their disillusionment with their parents’ advice that if they were polite, worked hard and earned good grades, the American dream would be theirs — a belief that McCain, in a 2010 interview, called “The Big Lie.” One of those conversations prompted the students to stage the protest. “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” McCain reportedly said the evening before.
- During the protest, an elderly white woman got up from her seat and put her hands on McCain’s and McNeil’s shoulders. McCain braced himself for a barrage of racial slurs, but instead, the woman told them that she was proud of them and regretted that someone hadn’t taken a stand sooner, according to McCain’s Los Angeles Times obituary.
- In the summer after the sit-in, McCain also picketed a segregated amusement park in Alexandria, Va., and sometimes slipped into the pews at white churches on Sunday mornings.
- After graduating from North Carolina A&T, McCain settled in North Carolina, where he eventually became a research chemist and sales representative for Celanese Corp. In 2008, he was elected chairman of the A&T board of trustees, and in 2010 was chosen for the University of North Carolina board of governors.
- When McCain and other members of the Greensboro Four returned to the Woolworth store in 1980 for a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of their protest, such a large crowd turned out that they were unable to get inside and eat at the lunch counter, as planned, according to a New York Times account of the event. “I come back today and I still can’t get served,” McCain joked.
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