CHARLOTTE — Franklin McCain never thought he was doing enough.
An icon of the civil rights movement, McCain was one of the Greensboro Four, college students who changed the world by sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter at F.W. Woolworth. Their simple request for service denied inspired many others in Greensboro, N.C., and across the country, where the “sit-in” spread.
But when I interviewed him 50 years after that Feb. 1, 1960, event, and asked the man who continued his activism throughout his life to grade himself, McCain thought for a bit before he said, “C-plus.” He continued: “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.’ ”
McCain also gave advice to those who felt a little self satisfied: “Look around you. Do you see things that are not just? Do something about it.”
Franklin McCain died Thursday in Greensboro, his family has announced. While the world lost a civil rights champion, I lost someone who inspired me – not from a history book – but close up.
In the years after that first interview — on the occasion of the opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, built in the shell of that Greensboro Woolworth — we talked from time to time. After earning degrees in chemistry and biology from North Carolina A&T State University, McCain worked as a chemist and sales representative at the Celanese Corporation in Charlotte; after retirement, he lived in a beautiful home here. His community service included work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and focused on education, from elementary all the way up to the university level, he told me. He served on several university boards and the University of North Carolina board of governors.
Last year, I interviewed him again, this time as a “legend” being honored by “Who’s Who in Black Charlotte.” He was still hard on himself. While he was mentoring nine students at the time, he told me he would ask himself, “Aren’t I smart enough, clever enough or visionary enough to do nine times nine?”
McCain said he wasn’t sure he could attend the ceremony to receive his award. It wasn’t so much the knee problems that slowed him down. He dearly missed Bettye, his wife of 47 years, he said — her advice, counsel and company; she had died in January of last year.
For the story in the “Who’s Who” publication, he shared the tale of how he came to marry the Bennett College student he met at party in Greensboro not long after the first sit-in. When he didn’t follow up and she wanted to know why, he recalled telling her: “You’re a nice woman, but at this stage of my life, I am preoccupied. I am preoccupied with what I call life’s mission. There are not many things more important than that.” When the persistent Bettye called again, he told her, “Come downtown where I am, get on a stool and get on a picket line and you can see me all you want.” She did.
For the award ceremony, I volunteered to be chauffeur, escort or whatever McCain needed to get his medallion in person, and was thrilled when he agreed. The line of people of all ages and races never slowed that night. Each person just wanted a moment, to shake his hand, to chat, to express gratitude. He was patient and humble. Spend an evening at Franklin McCain’s side and you will learn by example.
Though many wanted to talk about the past, his past, McCain lived in the present. He wanted to share his opinions about North Carolina’s current challenges over voting rights and other issues he believed were settled when he was a young activist. He didn’t approve of the wave of conservative legislation passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and wasn’t afraid to say so. “It’s unfair. It’s just not right,” he said. But then, fear was a very human emotion he said he never experienced, even as he sat down that day in 1960.
“What fear does, it causes people to be inactive, curl up and retreat,” McCain said. “If you can’t find anything in this life that you won’t give your life for, then ask the question, ‘why are you here?’”
In our conversations, McCain would joke, but he would also push me, ask me what I was doing to make a difference, to learn and grow. He always said he learned a lot that day in Woolworth, including an important one to never stereotype. That happened when an older white woman put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Boys, I am so proud of you,” and told him and his companions that they should have acted years before.
At the end of that magical evening last year, when I walked McCain to his door, he told me what a great time he had had.
My answer then and now was what everyone who believes in justice should be saying to Franklin McCain: “Thank you.”