The Black Students Who Wouldn't Leave the Lunch Counter

On civil rights, the Sixties actually started on February 1, 1960. And one of the four men who started it was Franklin McCain, who died Thursday at the age of 73.
The "Greensboro Four" re-enact their 1960 lunch counter sit-in on February 2, 1990. Franklin McCain,  third from left, died on January 10, 2013. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

What happened in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, took even John Lewis by surprise. In his memoir, Walking With the Wind, the future civil rights icon (whose most intense days at the head of the movement were yet ahead of him as that decade began) recounted the episode:

There were four guys in Greensboro, all of them freshman at North Carolina A&T College. They had no plan, no preparation. One of them had read that FOR comic book about King and Montgomery, they had begun talking about the process of nonviolent action, and on this particular afternoon they simply decided it was time for them to do something.

Which they did, taking four seats late that day at the whites-only lunch counter of Greensboro's downtown Woolworth's store and touching off what would come to be called the sit-in movement across the South. It happened so spontaneously, so suddenly, that the next morning's newspapers contained no accounts of the incident.

One of those brave students was Franklin McCain, who died Thursday at the age of 73. In its obituary Friday, the Charlotte Observer recounted this story, which offers some insight into McCain's motivations:

In an Observer story in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in, McCain said he had been told by his parents and grandparents that if they followed the Bill of Rights, Constitution and Ten Commandments, and if they worked hard and helped others, they had a good chance of success. “The system still betrayed us,” McCain said. “I considered myself as part of the big lie. All four of us did.”

And the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has available an old audio interview with McCain and one of his fellow protestors, Jibreel Khazan, who offered this nuance about the events of those days:

It was really designed to be carried out at the Woolworth lunch counter originally. But I remember Frank making a statement as the protest developed during the week. We didn't want to put the world on fire, we just wanted to eat. But behind it, we, I feel, did have the idea that this would catch on. We were hoping it would catch on and it would spread throughout the country, but it went even beyond our wildest imagination.

After he helped integrate the nation's lunch counters, after he helped spark the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, after he and his friends acted while others were still only pondering whether they should act, McCain dutifully completed his undergraduate work with a degree in chemistry and biology and spent three decades working as a chemist and raising a family in Charlotte. And, blessedly, he lived long enough to see the state that once had segregated him honor him.

There are several excellent pieces online about this man's life and times and at least a few nice tributes to him in death. The best by far comes from NPR in a piece put together Friday morning by Mark Memmott. NPR, in turn, cites the work of its local affiliate, WUNC, which offers an audio recollection by McCain on the events of that fateful day. Please do check out those links but here is the heart of the story:

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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