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State & National

Sit-in pioneer Franklin McCain dies
Civil rights icon was Charlotte resident
Published Friday, January 10, 2014 11:22 am
by Herbert L. White

Franklin McCain, one of four N.C. A&T State University students who sparked the sit-in movement, has died. 

Franklin McCain (second from left) with David “Chip” Richmond, son of the late David L. Richmond; Jibreel Khazan and Joseph A. McNeil in front of the statue commemorating the sit-in pioneers on the N.C. A&T State University campus in Greensboro.

Mr. McCain, 73, was a longtime Charlotte resident who was born in Union County, died Thursday. On Feb. 1, 1960, he was one of four teenagers who sat down at an all-white Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. Their action launched a new offensive in the civil rights era that was quickly copied in communities throughout the South.

"I certainly wasn't afraid,” he recalled in a National Public Radio interview. “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 Eugene McCain was born January 3, 1941 and spent his childhood in Washington D.C., where he graduated Eastern High School. He returned to North Carolina to attend A&T, where he met Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeill, who would join forces to spark a movement as the Greensboro Four.

Sit in, stand up

The dawn of the sit-in movement started when McCain and his classmates walked into the Greensboro Woolworth’s, bought some items and sat at the lunch counter. The activists were denied service by the store manager, but that was almost beside the point, McCain recalled to NPR:

“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.”

Woolworth's closed early, but the next day 20 students from A&T and nearby Bennett College for Women demanded service at the lunch counter. By the end of the week, 300 protesters were on hand and similar demonstrations spread to Charlotte, Rock Hill, S.C., Winston-Salem, Durham, Asheville and Wilmington. Within two months, 54 cities in nine states became sit-in sites; within six months, Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter.

Mr. McCain graduated A&T in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. The next year, he married Bettye Davis, a Bennett alumnus who was part of the movement. She died last year. They are survived by their sons and families.

"Our Daddy was a man who deeply loved his family and cherished his friends," oldest son Franklin McCain Jr. said in a statement. "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."

Mr. McCain worked for Celanese Corp. in Charlotte for 35 years and was involved with civic and community organizations, including the NAACP. He was a fixture at A&T, where the school sponsored reunions of the sit-in leaders every year. In 1994, Mr. McCain received an honorary doctorate from A&T for his contributions to the civil rights movement.

“The Aggie family mourns the loss of Dr. Franklin McCain,” A&T Chancellor Harold Martin said in a statement. “His contributions to this university, the city of Greensboro and the nation as a civil rights leader is without measure. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of Aggies and friends throughout the world.”

Said U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan: “The death of civil rights leader Franklin McCain is a tremendous loss for North Carolina and our country.” “As a young student in 1960, Franklin’s courage to sit at a lunch counter where he was not welcomed helped spark a movement that changed the course of our history. Franklin was an inspiration to me, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of a man (husband) Chip and I were honored to call a friend.”



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