Franklin McCain died at the age of 73, another chance for the rest of us to appreciate his commitment and courage, and to say thank you to remind ourselves of what’s possible.
McCain was one of the four freshmen (not those four freshmen) at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College who decided to desegregate the South one Sunday night in 1960. Along with Ezell Blair, Jr., Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, McCain sat in at a lunch counter in Woolworth’s on Monday morning, sparking the imagination of activists across the country. They were determined to stay until they were served, and over the next few days, hundreds joined them, starting in Greensboro and spreading across the South. (Find all of their biographies here.)
The story always astounds me, and I don’t think it really can be told too often (see here, here, and here, just for Politics Outdoors.) The civil rights movement was certainly already well underway, and had a few significant victories, but Jim Crow segregation still dominated the South.
The Greensboro sit-in is the moment in Franklin McCain’s life that will appear in our history books, but it’s a substantial and significant life, worth noting beyond the world of his friends and family (please see Nancy McLaughlin’s piece in the local paper, the News and Record.)
A few notes:
Franklin McCain was certainly a radical in 1960, but like his colleagues, he was determined to show that he was also a patriot, wearing his ROTC uniform when he entered Woolworth’s. Coming from a relatively advantaged background–for an African-American man in 1960-he thought he had the obligation to do more than talk about civil rights and put his body on the line for his beliefs. He also was not unduly optimistic about the chances of the sit-in working, but believed that he had a moral obligation to do something.
And his life extended well beyond the sit-in that day–or week–in February 1960. He was a committed activist, but a professional scientist. After graduating from college with a chemistry degree, he married Bettye Davis, another activist–who died just last year. They had three sons and seven grandchildren. McCain had a successful career working for the Celanese corporation as a chemist and product representative. He also continued to speak and organize throughout his life, reflecting not only on the sit-in phase of the civil rights movement, but on the activism of young people for years afterward. He encouraged rhetorically as well as by his example. Elaine Woo’s LA Times obit ends:
“Never ask for permission to start a revolution,” he told college students in Ohio a few years ago. “If there is something you want or need to do … just do it.”
Franklin McCain was exceptional, and a real American hero, but there are many like him.