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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

“David had some difficulties at the end of his life,” said McCain. “I always felt that David was somewhat afraid of true success because in so many instances he would defer to others who were far, far less capable than himself … He never wanted things to be focused on him, never wanted to stand out.”

Ezell Blair Jr. was a campus leader, president of the junior class, A&T’s NAACP and the Greensboro Congress for Racial Equality. He was “jovial, the jokester, very gregarious,” said McCain. He moved to New Bedford, Mass., in the mid-1960s, where he became a member of the New England Islamic Center and took the name Jibreel Khazan. In New Bedford, Khazan has worked with the developmentally disabled, the AFL-CIO Trade Council in Boston and other groups.

Advertisement

Joseph McNeil, who McCain said is “more like a brother” than a friend, graduated from A&T with a degree in engineering physics. “He is smart, gifted smart,” said McCain, a dean’s list student with a full four-year scholarship. “He is very analytical. He is impatient. He’s got a great soul as a person.”

McNeil served in the U.S. Air Force after graduating, attaining the rank of captain. In the Air Force, he initiated diversity programs and has worked for IBM, Bankers Trust in New York and as a stock broker. McNeil, who lives in Hempstead, N.Y., served the Federal Aviation Administration for over 15 years as head of the Flight Standards Division for the Eastern Region in Jamaica, N.Y. He retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of major general. His son, Franklin David, McCain’s godson, is named for his friends.

McCain—who was raised in Washington, D.C., received degrees in chemistry and biology from A&T and attended graduate school in Greensboro—worked as a chemist for the Celanese Corporation in Charlotte. He believes that it’s still possible for a handful of people to change the world. “I feel that way today; I can do anything I want to.” The Greensboro museum, he said, should be “a symbol of hope to people who might feel hopeless or helpless.”

“The facts don’t matter if the dream is big enough.”

His three sons and seven grandchildren will be in there on Feb. 1, and will learn some lessons, McCain hopes. When his teenage granddaughter looks at pictures from 50 years ago, she doesn’t believe that people would treat other people that way. McCain delights that her generation “has not been scarred and marred. That’s evidence of progress.” But then he thinks, “I have not done the job I should have done. I’ve got to tell her about the legacy and the history.”

Advertisement

And what grade would McCain—who has spent years raising money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, mentoring Charlotte schoolchildren and serving on community boards—give himself?

“C-plus.”

“I look at the all the situations I’ve been in and all the efforts I’ve been a part of, and I ask the questions, ‘Could I have done more? Could I have done it in less time? Could I have impacted more people?’ Each time I ask those questions, the answer is ‘yes, yes, yes.’ ”

Advertisement

“I’m not too much for retrospective because it won’t change anything,” he said. “Look around you. Do you see things that are not just? Do something about it.”

“You are a citizen of the world. What have you done to pay your rent lately?”

Mary C. Curtis, is an award-winning Charlotte-based writer, editor and multimedia journalist and a regular contributor to PoliticsDaily.com. Her “Keeping It Positive” television commentary airs weekly on Fox News Rising Charlotte.

Advertisement

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.