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Franklin McCain made history for personal courage

January 16, 2014 

When I moved to Greensboro in 1977, the phrase “downtown revitalization” was only recently coined. Like most medium-sized cities in North Carolina and elsewhere, Greensboro’s core was struggling. On Elm Street, the center drag in downtown, there were small stores and in the next few years, many came and went.

Sometimes, during lunch, we’d walk through those downtown streets a little and on occasion, for fun, we’d go in the Woolworth’s store, where as a folksinger once put it, you could “fill up your bag with unnecessary plastic objects.” Woolworth stores smelled like popcorn and had lunch counters and offered soup and sandwiches.

Three years later, the unveiling of a state historic marker at the corner of Elm Street and Friendly Avenue would in a permanent way stand to remind visitors and residents that this was no ordinary Woolworth’s. The marker recognized the famous sit-in on Feb. 1, 1960, when four courageous students from N.C. A&T State University, an historically black institution now part of the University of North Carolina system, staged a sit-in at the then-segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Thirty years later, the site got what it really deserved, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. It was 50 years after the sit-in. Fifty years after Franklin McCain, then 19, and his college mates, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond calmly walked into Woolworth’s, bought a couple of items and sat at the lunch counter, only to be informed they could not be served.

The counter was segregated, following, Woolworth’s said, the customs of the local community.

The protest wasn’t the first sit-in, but it would become arguably the most famous, and from Greensboro the movement spread elsewhere in North Carolina. These young African-American students could not have known then the magnitude of what they were doing, though they certainly knew all the potential dangers. Their stand, or sit-in, worked, ultimately, with Woolworth’s and other stores feeling the pinch of boycotts and the like, and economic desegregation gradually spread.

Franklin McCain died last week. He was 73, a family man who stood up a lot after that sit-in. A chemist and sales rep for the Celanese Corp., he remained a civil rights activist all his life, and a living monument to the movement he helped start. McCain was widely respected, doing terms on the trustees for his alma mater (board chair, in fact) and on the prestigious UNC system Board of Governors.

I met him a few times, and always thought that perhaps he gained a life’s confidence from the bravery he and the others were forced to test on that Februrary day. Because, as many who remembered him said, McCain kept up that battle for civil rights all his life.

And he was right, yes he was, in his belief that the battle was far from won.

We see evidence of the ground still to cover in the present day, even following the election, twice, of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States.

And we see, still, in North Carolina, voter suppression laws from the Republican-run General Assembly that will affect minority voters to a greater degree than others (voter ID, for example), and cuts in unemployment benefits and a failure to expand Medicaid, two things that certainly have an impact on those same minorities, though they will affect hundreds of thousands of citizens of all races.

But deeper, and more embarrassing, are the incredibly vicious criticisms of Obama, who was in the area Wednesday, at N.C. State University. In advance of that visit, some Internet comments were just awful. Things about how he shouldn’t be in the state and shouldn’t be allowed on the campus, about how rotten a president he is, etc.

Some of the criticism of Obama is reflective of the decidedly uncivil way people treat elected officials. Gone, at least in many cases, is any kind of deference to the office or respect for the individual who holds it as the leader of the free world. Bill Clinton endured amazing vitriol. And yes, so did George W. Bush, from the left.

But African Americans couldn’t be blamed for suspecting that the anger, the almost explosive way in which some react to Obama, is surely in part related to race. We don’t want to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. We’d like to believe we’ve gone far beyond the kinds of deep-seeded feelings on race so prevalent in 1960.

But Franklin McCain, a friend said, believed individuals and the country needed to “keep fighting” for equality. He was right. Because we still see evidence, in our private and public discourse, that we haven’t come nearly as far as we thought we had. The journey that McCain helped begin is far from over.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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