Skip to main content

Franklin McCain -- of 'Greensboro Four,' who defied whites-only barrier -- dies

By Monte Plott, CNN
updated 1:00 PM EST, Sun January 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Franklin McCain, who died Thursday, was one of the "Greensboro Four"
  • In 1960, four black students defied segregation by sitting at a whites-only lunch counter
  • The act spawned sit-ins elsewhere and was hailed as a major desegregation effort
  • "We wanted to be included in the round table of humanity," said another of the four

(CNN) -- Five decades ago, Franklin McCain and three fellow African-American college students made history just by sitting down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting -- for service that never came that day at the whites-only counter.

The four came back the next day. And the next.

The "Greensboro Four," as they came to be known, drew national attention with their peaceful demonstration in the winter of 1960.

Click through to see people who passed away in 2014. Click through to see people who passed away in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

Within three days of their first attempt to simply sit and eat, more than 300 students, including whites, were taking part in what was being called "a sit-in" in Greensboro.

Nearly six months later, with similar sit-ins happening at dozens of whites-only lunch counters in Southern cities, the counter where it all started served its first black customers.

McCain died Thursday after a brief illness, according to his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University. He died in a hospital a few miles from the old Woolworth's location -- now the nonprofit International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened 50 years to the day McCain and his colleagues began their sit-in on February 1, 1960.

The museum posted on its site a tribute to McCain and the other three students for their "courageous act (that) marked a turning point in the struggle for equality that continues to this day."

McCain, 72, graduated from North Carolina A&T in 1964, and worked for a chemical company, the Celanese Corp., in Charlotte for almost 35 years, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

He was a member of the North Carolina university system's board of governors and was active in civil rights throughout his life, according to North Carolina A&T.

"His contributions to this university, the city of Greensboro and the nation as a civil rights leader are without measure. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of Aggies and friends throughout the world," A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin said in a statement posted on the university's website.

In 2010, McCain told CNN of his concern when an elderly white woman approached the lunch counter that day.

"I was thinking to myself, she must have knitting needles and scissors in that handbag of hers and they're about to go right through me," said McCain, a bespectacled freshman at the time.

Instead of pulling a knitting needle on the young men, the woman placed her hand on McCain's shoulder and smiled warmly.

"She says, 'Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago,'" McCain said.

"That was the greatest source of inspiration to me, probably for all my life, primarily because it came from a very unexpected person," he said. "You picture 1960 in the South in a little old white lady's space and you are acting out of place, and she compliments you."

Another member of the four, Joseph McNeil, also spoke with CNN on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in and said the planned action grew out of lifetimes of personal experiences with segregation.

"Unless we decided to do something about it and took some action, our children would have had to also challenge racial segregation," said McNeil, a retired major general in the Air Force Reserves. "Woolworth's was a national chain, and what we fundamentally wanted to do was to bring attention to the negative, and the evil of segregation."

In addition to McCain and McNeil, the Greensboro Four were Jibreel Khazan -- then known as Ezell A. Blair Jr. -- and David Richmond. Richmond died in 1990 at age 49, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

Speaking of McCain as news of his death spread, Khazan told the New & Record, "Frank would say we didn't want to set the world on fire, we just wanted to sit down and eat like everybody else. We wanted to be included in the round table of humanity."

People we've lost in 2014

CNN's Thom Patterson and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
James Shigeta, a prolific and pioneering Asian-American actor whose 50-year career includes the movies "Die Hard" and "Flower Drum Song," has died at age 81.
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Actress Skye McCole Bartusiak, who played Mel Gibson's youngest daughter in "The Patriot," has died at age 21.
updated 9:34 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
James Garner, the understated, wisecracking everyman actor who enjoyed multi-generational success on both the small and big screen, has died. He was 86.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Actress Elaine Stritch, known for her brash persona, gravelly voice and versatility over seven decades on Broadway, has died at age 89.
updated 12:28 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
American blues guitarist and singer Johnny Winter died in a hotel room in Switzerland at age 70.
updated 5:59 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and anti-apartheid activist, has died at age 90.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Sun July 13, 2014
Grammy-winning jazz bassist Charlie Haden, whose music career spanned seven decades and several genres, has died at age 76.
updated 4:30 PM EDT, Sun July 13, 2014
Renowned conductor Lorin Maazel died from complications of pneumonia at age 84.
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Sun July 13, 2014
Drummer Tommy Ramone was 65 and the last living original member of The Ramones. Ramone was also one of the band's composers.
updated 7:21 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Rosemary Murphy, an Emmy Award-winning actress, has died. She was 89.
updated 6:59 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
"Harry Potter" actor David Legeno has died at age 50, a California sheriff's office said.
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Eileen Ford, who founded Ford Model Agency 70 years ago and helped modernize the modeling industry, has died at the age of 92.
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The actor who gave voice to Pinocchio in Walt Disney's 1940 animation movie has died. He was 87.
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Eduard Shevardnadze, whose political career seesawed between two extremes, has died at age 86.
updated 9:06 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Former Real Madrid star Alfredo Di Stefano, widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, has died at the age of 88.
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire publisher and banking heir who financed conservative causes that included attempts to discredit Bill Clinton while he was president, has died.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner and World War II officer who survived a horrific plane crash, a seven-week raft journey, near starvation and unspeakable torture, has died at age 97.
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Walter Dean Myers, a beloved author of children's books, died following a brief illness. He was 76.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT