CHARLOTTE — Franklin McCain Sr. and three fellow college students became icons of the U.S. civil rights movement in 1960 when they sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and asked for coffee.
Within a month, sit-ins had spread to hundreds of cities across the country.
McCain, 71, who was born in Union County, N.C., and lived much of his life in Charlotte, died Thursday night in Greensboro after a brief illness, family members say.
McCain and other members of the Greensboro Four – Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond – conducted the first sit-in on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960, at the F.W. Woolworth store on Elm Street in Greensboro. The next day, about two dozen students joined them.
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. But he also remained active in civil rights efforts.
A portion of the lunch counter from the Woolworth store is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. And the site of the store in Greensboro is occupied by the International Civil Rights Museum.
It was far different on that Monday in 1960, when McCain and the other three students walked a mile from the college campus to the F.W. Woolworth store to make a statement against segregation. They bought a few items – McCain bought toothpaste and a composition book – and asked for receipts.
Then they sat at the whites-only lunch counter.
Their actions followed conversations they had nightly on campus.
As they had planned the previous evening, they entered the store about 3:20 p.m., made their purchases, and then sat at the nearly-empty lunch counter. A white waitress and the store manager told them that they could not be served. McCain said a black woman who cleared the counter told them to order food at the stand-up counter downstairs.
An elderly white woman sitting at the counter got up and left. As she passed the students, she put her right hand on McCain’s shoulder and her left on McNeil’s.
“I was convinced we were going to get an earful,” McCain recounted a half-century later. “But then she said, ‘Boys, I am so proud of you. I only wish you’d done this 10 years ago.’ “
McCain said it taught him never to stereotype anyone.
The four students left the counter shortly before closing time, vowing to return. Soon afterward, the sit-ins spread to Charlotte, Raleigh, Rock Hill and Fayetteville, and then beyond across the South.
The Woolworth store integrated the lunch counter on July 25, 1960.