Saturday, March 12, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Franklin McCain (1942-2014)

Franklin McCain was one of four young black college students who sparked nonviolent sit-in protests across America's Deep South in the 1960's.  McCain died in Greensboro, North Carolina on January 9, 2014. He was 73.

I am 58 years old. I grew up in the Deep South in the 1960's. I know very well that I am not supposed to feel the way I do about Franklin McCain.  Franklin McCain is a personal hero of mine, and was I believe, a man of tremendous courage.

Twelve years ago (it was "post-9/11", as much as I hate to use that term), I was in a small barbecue restaurant in my home-town waiting for a take-out order (a pound of of pulled pork, a dozen fresh buns, and my choice of sides). I was surprised to see a middle-aged black man sitting alone at a center table eating a pork bbq sandwich. I was surprised because you rarely see black people in that town who aren't in cars and passing through town quickly. This guy was simply a truck driver who stopped on his way down U.S. 231 to grab a bite to eat.

He was facing the front of the restaurant, away from the group of local guys were sitting at a corner table in the back. They were telling "n*gger jokes" in a loud voice so that he could hear everything they said. He just ignored them and kept eating. I was pretending not to see what was going on, but I was keenly aware of what was happening. One of them "ol' boys" announced loudly that he was "gonna see if that n* needs help finding his way out of town," and he got up and went to the man's table. He stood across the table from the man, right in his field of vision, and said something to the effect of "You must be lost, boy."

I can remember how I felt. I felt something was about to happen, and I didn't intend to be involved; but I also didn't intend to leave; I was going to stay and watch everything, and offer to act as a witness. That was it. I wasn't going to involve myself. I had to live in that town. Besides, it wasn't my fight.

My help wasn't necessary. The truck driver finished his meal, and without saying a word to anyone or looking his antagonists in the eye, he got up calmly, and he walked out. He never showed any sign of emotion; not anger, certainly not fear.

The 2010 census revealed that town to be 98.3% white when I lived there a figure I think is underestimated. That would mean there are 120 people in the town who were non-white. If there were, I never saw 'em. And if there's a whiter place on earth, I ain't been there. If asked, I'm sure 9 out of 10 people in that town would've agreed that that black man had a right to sit down and have a meal in that restaurant. But I would also bet, not one of those people would've lifted a finger to help him. It wasn't their fight.

I can tell you this, though ... I witnessed cowardice in bullying that day. And I witnessed a man who would not be bullied.

I witnessed an extraordinary act of courage that day. Extraordinary? Absolutely. It was an act that was beyond the ordinary; exceptional; unusual.

I'm 58 years old. I can tell you this, in my lifetime, I have known very few men that I believe would even dream of doing something that took that much courage. That man put his safety at risk for a principle. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to gain. He risked paying a big price simply to preserve his dignity. I can do that! (or can I?) Most people I have known in my life, when the chips were down, folded instantly on matters of principle. Not their fight. They've got to live in their towns.

I believe that truck driver, perhaps without even realizing it, emulated the acts of others who have calmly, and peacefully, exercised their rights and asserted their dignity, damn the consequences.

56 years ago, on February 1, 1960, a man named Franklin McCain did the same courageous thing. He sat down a coffee counter at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. He and three friends (all students from an all-black agricultural trade school) sat at a counter in a Woolworth five-and-dime and asked to be served like any other patrons. And those four young men unintentionally started the famous Greensboro sit-ins.  Within two weeks, their sit-in had spread to fifteen cities in five Southern states.  By the year's end, 50,000 people had participated in demonstrations in 100 cities, and 3,600 of them had been put in jail.

The story of Franklin McCain's extraordinary act of courage was best told by the Charlotte Observer on the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, and I reproduce that article below. I would only add this, Franklin McCain fought again as an Air Force officer during the Vietnam War later in the late 1960's. He later said, "This is my country. I not only fought for it, I fought for the chance to make it right. No one's going to deny me the opportunity."

And I witnessed an exhibition of extraordinary courage by a man who emulated Franklin McCain's historic example. I'm wiser, richer, and stronger as a result of the actions of a man I never met; and never will.

Because he sat down, everything changed

By David Perlmutt
The Charlotte Observer
, Monday, Feb. 01, 2010

Fifty years later, the event that made Charlotte's Franklin McCain an historical figure continues to define his life. Nothing's compared since.

"Not even close," McCain said last week. "Not even the birth of my first son. I told him that, too."

On Feb. 1, 1960, a Monday like today, McCain and three other freshmen at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, walked a mile from campus to the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime on North Elm Street, to make a statement against segregation. They purchased a few items - McCain bought toothpaste and a composition book - and asked for receipts. Then they found the "whites-only" lunch counter and simply sat down.

First McCain and Joseph McNeil, then Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond.

They ordered coffee.

Today, McCain will return to that five-and-dime to take part in the opening dedication of the long-awaited International Civil Rights Center & Museum, following a weekend of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Four's history-altering protests.

All four had arrived at the Greensboro campus of like mind, angry "at the system," said McCain, 69.

"It had betrayed me," McCain said. "My parents and grandparents told me if you believe in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution; if you adopt the Ten Commandments as a code of ethics; if you go to school and work hard and do things for other people - quite often without them knowing it - if you did all those things, you'd have a good chance at success.

"The system still betrayed us. I considered myself as part of the big lie. All four of us did."

McCain and Richmond, who died in 1990 of cancer, were roommates in Scott Hall; Khazan and McNeil lived down the hall. That semester they had three classes together and met nightly to study and talk about injustices.

"The more we talked, the more we felt we were living out the lie," McCain said. "The only thing we'd done is dissected a system, criticized it and our parents and other folk who tried to nurture us.

"We didn't like that feeling."

A plan to 'make a statement'

So the night before, the four decided to sit down at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Back then, F.W. Woolworth had stores around the country and overseas - big enough to bring their protest visibility.

"We were trying to make as big a statement as we could," McCain said. "We wanted to exploit a racial dichotomy in terms of service."

They met at the A&T library after classes the next day to go into town.

They'd show no violence.

The four entered the store about 3:20 p.m. They made their purchases and then took four seats at the near-empty lunch counter.

A white waitress walked by and said nothing. On her way back, they asked for service.

"I can't serve you," she said.

"We've not only made purchases and have the receipts to prove it, we've already been served," McCain said.

"We just don't serve colored people here," she said.

A black woman who cleared the counter told the boys to order at the stand-up counter downstairs. "She treated us like we were the ones creating problems," McCain said.

The manager, Curly Harris, appeared. What do you want?

"We just want to be served," they told him.

"We can't," he said. "It's the custom."

The four tried to reason. Soon a police officer appeared, and began pacing the aisle, slapping his hand with a nightstick. "I was preparing to pick up my brains from the floor," McCain said.

The students went unserved, but didn't budge. The only other lunch patron, an elderly white woman, got up to leave. As she passed, she stopped and placed her right hand on McCain's shoulder and left on McNeil's.

"I was convinced we were going to get an earful," McCain said. "But then she said: 'Boys I am so proud of you. I only wish you'd done this 10 years ago.'

"That taught me never to stereotype anybody."

They left just before closing time, vowing to come back.

That night, the four met with 24 student leaders. They told the leaders what they'd done and asked them to join.

Sit-ins begin springing up

Only McCain and McNeil showed the next day, with two other students they'd recruited. But as the news spread, the sit-ins grew. By the fifth day, 300 protestors took turns at the counter. Lunch counter sit-ins began in other cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Rock Hill.

It took six months of sit-ins for the Greensboro Woolworth to desegregate their lunch counter.

"That day, Feb. 1, 1960, was the best day of my life," said McCain, who became a chemist and sales executive. "And just for sitting on some dumb stool. It was a reaffirmation of who I am and what I'm supposed to be."

Now that Woolworth, closed since 1993, is a museum. A length of the counter is at the Smithsonian.

McCain thought he'd get kicked out of school. In the 50 years since, he's prodded officials for voting rights, better schools and medical care for minorities. When he saw wrongs, he spoke his mind.

He says he's "still angry," though more optimistic by the election of a black president. "I had a good feeling about where we were headed," he said. "Now I'm not quite sure. I see the same ugly heads rising."

He's a former A&T trustees chair and a current member of the UNC system's Board of Governors. There's a February One Monument on the A&T campus with a bronze statue to the Greensboro Four.

Over the weekend, four new dorms were named for each of them. Recently, McCain took his grandson, Franklin McCain III, to see them.

He looked at the one named for McCain: "He said, 'Granddaddy, that building says Franklin E. McCain, but nothing about senior. I believe I'll claim it for myself.'"
Franklin McCain, 1960 (Age 19) 
Franklin McCain, 2010 (Age 69)