Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Franklin McCain: Taking Jim Crow Off The Menu

Franklin McCain speaks during the AFL-CIO conference in Greensboro, N.C., in this Jan. 16, 2010, photo.
Franklin McCain speaks during the AFL-CIO conference in Greensboro, N.C., in this Jan. 16, 2010, photo.

When Franklin McCain was a freshman at North Carolina A&T State University, he was sitting himself down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., as a conscious gesture to change the world. Or at least the segregated world in his home state. They were protesting the downtown stores' policy of refusing sit-down service to blacks (although the stores were perfectly happy to take black customers' money for things other than lunch).

Today's Special: Jim Crow

It was Feb. 1, 1960. The violent sit-ins as we would come to know them — the ones where neatly dressed Negro students would be ignored by nervous wait staff and assaulted by outraged hooligans as police calmly looked the other way, refusing to intervene — were yet to come. But the reverberations from the sit-in McCain staged with the other members of the "Greensboro Four" — Ezell Blair (now known as Jibreel Khazan), Joseph McNeil and David Richmond — would soon ripple out into the world as other students followed their lead: 25 students from North Carolina A&T and other schools came back to sit at the same Woolworth counter the next day. And by the end of the month, the protests had extended to more than 250 major cities throughout the country. The polite young men at Woolworth who sat down and refused to get up had started a revolution.

Given the swift and often violent responses to black folk who tried to integrate segregated establishments, it would have been logical for Franklin McCain to have been afraid as he eased onto his lunch-counter stool. But, he told NPR in an interview several years ago, he wasn't: "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."

The former possible option — jail — was almost as frightening to law-abiding black parents as the latter one. Because a lot of black men were hauled off to jail for all kinds of reasons — some legitimate, many not. And they often returned in worse shape than when they went in.

That wasn't on young Franklin McCain's mind, though. He felt, he said, as if his manhood had been restored. And something else: the promise that America could be better than it was, if it wanted to be. If people forced it to be. McCain told the Charlotte Observer in 2010 that he'd been raised to believe in the Bible, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that hard work and personal integrity would give him a shot at success.

He realized as he grew older that segregation was the spoke in the wheel of his personal progress. Without its removal, nothing would go forward. "The system still betrayed us," he told the Observer. "I considered myself part of the big lie. All four of us did." So the sit-in would speak truth to power in an unmistakable way.

Continuing Contributions In Later Life

Franklin McCain would go on to graduate from A&T with a double degree in chemistry and biology. He married Bettye Davis, his sweetheart from Bennett College, the women's school down the road from A&T. They remained married until Bettye's death last year. The McCains had three sons, Franklin Jr., Wendell and Bert, who would grow up and be able to sit down anywhere they wanted, thanks to the movement their father helped start. He sat on the board of his alma mater (which honored the four with a statue on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in), and on the boards of several other North Carolina colleges. He was also active in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Over the years, the Greensboro Four were lauded and honored. The Woolworth that became famous because of their sit-in gave in and integrated a few months after the initial protest. Eventually it closed and would ultimately reopen as a civil rights museum. I saw a segment of the original counter at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and imagined the four young men quietly waiting to be served.

Franklin McCain died Friday after a short illness in Greensboro. His age is variously described in the media as being 71 or 73. "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," Franklin Jr. said on Friday. "To us, he was Daddy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit