The Greensboro Four, 50 Years Later

Remembering the four young men who challenged segregation and launched a movement.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The image of the Greensboro Four is frozen in American history, four young men sitting quietly at the lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth in downtown Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960—politely asking to be served and being refused because they are black. There had been sit-ins before, but the headlines generated by the simple act of Franklin McCain and three friends at North Carolina A&T State University inspired others and launched a movement.

However, Franklin McCain is not one for nostalgia. The 68-year-old lives very much in the present. And even as the new International Civil Rights Center & Museum prepares for its opening, exactly 50 years after this historic act, in the shell of that long-closed Greensboro Woolworth, McCain is thinking more about what’s next for him and the country.

The museum is supposed to be “a place for people to exchange ideas about this society of ours and democracy or the lack of,” he told me in his Charlotte, N.C., home. It’s a place for “kids to talk about the heritage of black folks.”

“I am always reminded that in any upheaval or in any march for change you really need just a few people, sometimes only one. And I am also reminded to give myself a little report card to see what I’ve done lately,” he said. “I’m forced to give myself a grade, comparing what I have done to what I should have, could have done.” He said he is not always ecstatic about the grade, not depressed either. “It’s sort of a challenge.”

He intends to be a part of the museum’s opening celebration, parts of which he will especially cherish. There’s the luncheon to honor “unsung heroes;” the girl who always showed up to sit-in even on Saturdays and holidays; the guy who made the signs (“you could call him at midnight”); the ministers who opened their doors and let students use their church copying machines and telephones.

And of course, McCain will be reunited with the other two surviving members of the Greensboro Four. A memorial will honor David Richmond, who died in 1990.

McCain, Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. had a lot in common from the start. They were all science majors, took several classes together and lived 15 feet apart. “We were brought up with the same set of values and outlooks, the same kinds of lessons from our parents and grandparents,” McCain said. The sit-in happened “because of a dare.”

“We were totally exhausted,” he said, spending time—as college students always have—discussing “society in general, specifically people we loved and admired.” They gave their parents a hard time “because of what we thought they had not done.” The young men couldn’t understand how they could live with segregation. “To us, that didn’t make sense. Why not do something about it?”

Then they realized they were judging the wrong people. “Our parents didn’t do so badly; after all, look at us. All these months we had been talking and giving our parents hell,” he remembered. And with all the opportunity in the world, “I haven’t done one thing.” To walk away would be irresponsible.

They picked Woolworth because the store was “on every corner,” and because while anyone could get service at any counter in New York and Philadelphia, it was a different story in Richmond, Va., or Greensboro. They made purchases, so that when they were turned away at the lunch counter, they could show receipts to prove they had already been served in the store.

“We were going to be nonviolent,” McCain said, even when people “said nasty things or spat on us or whacked us across the head. They were going to be courteous, have exemplary decorum and look nice, as everyone who has seen the photos of the young men surrounded by chaos knows.

McCain knew that things would never be the same: “If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky, I would come back to my campus but in a pine box.”

“I was too angry to be afraid.”

It’s always been easy for the Greensboro Four to keep the conversation going, talking about everything “from 1960 to Barack Obama,” said McCain.

David Richmond, the A&T roommate McCain describes as “on the shy side,” was a Greensboro native, “extremely smart, athletic, easy to be a brother.” He worked with a government jobs-training program in Greensboro but left for several years because of threats and his “troublemaker” label as one of the Greensboro Four. When he returned to take care of his parents, he worked as a janitor for the Greensboro Health Care Center. He died in December 1990, at 49, and was awarded a posthumous honorary doctorate degree from A&T.