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Franklin McCain, One Of 'Greensboro Four,' Dies

(From left) Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain, two of the Greensboro Four who the day before had sat at the "whites only" counter of a Woolworth store, came back on Feb. 2, 1960, with two others — Billy Smith and Clarence Henderson.
Jack Moebes/Greensboro News & Record
(From left) Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain, two of the Greensboro Four who the day before had sat at the "whites only" counter of a Woolworth store, came back on Feb. 2, 1960, with two others — Billy Smith and Clarence Henderson.

Franklin McCain, one of the "Greensboro Four" who in 1960 sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina and launched a sit-in movement that would soon spread to cities across the nation, has died.

Franklin McCain in 2010.
Lynn Hey / AP
Franklin McCain in 2010.

North Carolina A&T State University said Friday morning that McCain died Thursday "after a brief illness at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro."

Our colleagues at WUNC report that McCain had just turned 73. Other news outlets are reporting he was 71.

As the Winston-Salem Journal reminds its readers, "McCain was joined by Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond" at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960. They were there "to protest the chain's policy of refusing to serve food to blacks."

All four were freshmen at North Carolina A&T.

"The building," the Journal notes, "is now the site of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The street south of the site has been named February One Place in commemoration of the event. A portion of the lunch counter where they sat is on exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C."

On its webpage about that counter, the Smithsonian writes that:

"On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South."

McCain once told NPR, as WUNC says, about how he overcame any fear about being arrested — or having something worse happen:

"I certainly wasn't afraid. 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."

In it remembrance of McCain, the station adds this account of the historic day in 1960:

"McCain and his classmates walked into the store, purchased some items and then walked over to the segregated counter. McCain recalls:

" '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.'

"He hadn't even asked for service. When McCain and the others did, they were denied. A manager told them they weren't welcome, a police officer patted his hand with his night stick. The tension grew but it never turned violent.

"As McCain and the others continued to sit at the counter, an older white woman who had been observing the scene walked up behind him:

" 'And she whispered in a calm voice, boys, I'm so proud of you.'

"McCain says he was stunned:

" 'What I learned from that little incident was don't you ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life until you at least experience them and have the opportunity to talk to them."

"Woolworth's closed early and the four men returned to campus with empty stomachs and no idea about what they had just started. The next day another 20 students joined them and 300 came out by the end of the week. Word of the sit-ins spread by newspapers and demonstrations began in Winston-Salem, Durham, Asheville and Wilmington; within 2 months of the initial sit-in, 54 cities in nine different states had movements of their own.

"The Greensboro lunch counter desegregated six months later."

The Observer says that "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. ... He also remained active in civil rights efforts."

According to Civil Rights Greensboro, a website devoted to the history of the civil rights movement in that city, Richmond died in 1990. It also has posts on:

-- McCain

-- McNeil

-- Khazan

Watch Code Switch for more on McCain and the Greensboro Four.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.