Dignitaries pay tribute to civil rights pioneer Franklin McCain

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

A single moment defined Franklin McCain Sr.’s place in history. But it didn’t define the life he went on to lead for the next 54 years.

That was the message Friday in a parade of tributes to a man remembered as everything from a devoted father to “an American hero” dedicated to making a difference in his country and community.

McCain, who died last week at 73, was buried Friday. More than 1,000 mourners paid their respects at a memorial at Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

On Feb. 1, 1960, McCain was one four N.C. A&T students who sat down at the whites-only lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro and ordered coffee and donuts. That simple act sparked a movement that spread across the South, a movement Martin Luther King Jr. called “electrifying.”

On Friday, McCain elicited tributes from others who were on the front lines of civil rights battles, and even from the president of the United States.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called him “a founding father of the new America.” The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, a Presbyterian Church official, called him a “modern-day emancipator.”

To A&T Chancellor Harold Martin, he was “an American hero.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said the Greensboro sit-in “sparked a movement that changed the course of our history.”

Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. secretary of transportation, urged people to appreciate the legacy of the Greensboro Four.

“Every time you sit down to get a cup of coffee, remember who paid the price for that,” he said.

Foxx also read a message from President Barack Obama, who said McCain “helped teach us we are the change we seek.”

‘He kept pushing’

After graduating from N.C. A&T, McCain became a chemist and worked for 35 years with Celanese Corp. in Charlotte. He remained active in the civil rights movement.

He was a key supporter of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and prominent among education leaders. He served on the board of trustees at A&T and on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

In Charlotte, he was active in the community and once led the Black Political Caucus.

Tom Ross, the UNC system president, presented McCain’s family with a replica of the statue of the four erected on the N.C. A&T campus. The statue depicts the four standing in a line, McCain in his ROTC uniform standing nearly a head above the others.

“That iconic image is certainly how many in the world will remember Franklin McCain,” Ross said. “But what I’ll remember most … is his courage and unwavering commitment to doing what is right didn’t end at Woolworth. ...

“For Franklin, it was never about being known, about being in the spotlight. It was about making a difference.”

Foxx made the same point.

“He did not live his life through the rear-view mirror,” Foxx said. “He kept pushing.”

Invoking the words of King, former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said McCain understood that “we have a continuing obligation to bend the arc of history to justice.”

A reunion of trailblazers

Jackson, McCain’s classmate at A&T, recalled McCain as a man of “non-negotiable dignity,” who was “smarter, more mature, more focused” than his peers.

Jackson drew a direct line from the sit-in movement to an African-American president and to the demise of the “cotton curtain” of segregation.

Speaking from the pulpit, he said, “This church should not be able to contain the people who should be saying ‘thank you’ today.”

The service was a sort of reunion of those who made their mark in the civil rights era.

The two surviving members of the Greensboro Four, Jibreel Khazan and Joseph McNeil Sr., were there (David Richmond died in 1990). So were Sarah Stevenson, active in Charlotte’s school desegregation efforts, and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who integrated Clemson University in 1963.

Like the Greensboro Four, Jackson said Gantt, whom he called “the Clemson One,” helped end the era of segregation.

Nelson, the Presbyterian official, described McCain’s legacy.

“He taught us how to challenge a nation and love a nation at the same time,” he said.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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