Mr. McCain, second from left, sits with other students at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 2, 1960, the second day of their peaceful protest there. (John G. Moebes/Corbis)

Franklin McCain, who helped touch off the civil rights movement of the 1960s when he and three other college students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter where they knew they would not be served, died Jan. 9 at a hospital in Greensboro, N.C. He was 73.

The cause was respiratory ailments, said his daughter-in-law Lori McCain.

Mr. McCain belonged to the Greensboro Four — the four students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina who, like many civil rights activists before and after them, demonstrated the power of peaceful resistance by ordinary people.

In addition to their convictions, they had the relative purity of youth. Mr. McCain, his roommate, David Richmond, and their friends Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. were college freshmen, and they had grown tired of the everyday injustices to which they were subjected as African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

These indignities included the fact that they could not eat at the whites-only lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store in downtown Greensboro. And so they decided, on Feb. 1, 1960, to simply enter the establishment, take a seat and order refreshments — coffee, a doughnut, perhaps some cherry pie.

“If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time,” Mr. McCain recalled years later. “If I were not quite so lucky, I would come back to my campus but in a pine box,” he added, noting the dangers confronted by demonstrators in the heated environment of the era.

He said he was “too angry to be afraid.”

When the students sat down, a waitress told them that “we don’t serve Negroes here.” They showed her receipts from their purchase minutes earlier of school supplies and other items and asked why Woolworth’s accepted their business in the store but not at the lunch counter.

At one point, a black employee told them to stop making trouble. A white woman seated near the students expressed her pride in them — and asked why they hadn’t acted earlier.

Woolworth’s was a national chain and, in matters of segregation, pursued a policy of adhering to local practices. And so the students were not served. Mr. McCain and others returned the next day, and day after day after that one, with an increasing number of demonstrators. Not yet a week into the demonstration, at least 1,000 had come to protest with them.

The Woolworth’s sit-in was not the first of its kind, but it attracted intense national media coverage and was credited with sparking a movement of sit-ins across the country. Conceived and sustained by youths, the Greensboro demonstration also helped inspire the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was formed in 1960 and became a cornerstone of the civil rights effort.

In time, the Woolworth’s lunch counter was temporarily closed, and negotiations began with the local business community. When those talks failed to produce a resolution, more sit-ins ensued. On July 25, 1960, nearly six months after the protest began, Woolworth’s served its first black customers at the Greensboro lunch counter.

By that time, Mr. McCain had returned for the summer to the Washington area, where he grew up, and where he continued demonstrating by sitting in whites-
only pews and churches and picketing at an amusement park. He raced back to North Carolina for the desegregation of Woolworth’s, the Greensboro News and Record reported, and had a meal.

“We had no notion that we’d even be served,” Mr. McCain told The Washington Post years later. “What we wanted to do was serve notice, more than anything else, that we were going to be about trying to achieve some of the rights and privileges we were due as citizens of this country.”

Franklin Eugene McCain was born Jan. 3, 1941, in Union County, N.C. He recalled being traumatized by the death in 1955 of Emmett Till, a teenager who was lynched in the Mississippi Delta after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever felt suicidal at 14,” Mr. McCain once told documentary filmmakers, “but I did.”

Mr. McCain grew up in Northeast Washington and graduated from Eastern High School in 1959. Like his three university friends, he studied science at North Carolina A&T. During late-night conversations, they often talked about the failures of previous generations to correct racial injustice.

“We finally felt we were being hypocritical because we were doing the same thing that everyone else had done, nothing,” he told the News and Record. “Up to then, we were armchair activists.”

They decided to act shortly after a Christmas holiday, when McNeil traveled by bus from his family’s home in New York back to North Carolina and was denied service at the Greensboro bus terminal.

Years later, Blair (who later took the name Jibreel Khazan), described Mr. McCain as “the instigator.” One evening, Mr. McCain asked his friends a question.

“I asked the group if we were chicken,” he told The Post, “and they looked around and said, ‘No.’ And McNeil said, ‘Well, then it’s time we go downtown.’ ”

Mr. McCain received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology in 1964. He worked as a chemist and sales executive, spending much of his career with the Celanese Corp. in Charlotte. He served on his alma mater’s board of trustees and on the University of North Carolina system’s board of governors.

His wife of 48 years, Bettye Davis McCain, died in 2013. Survivors include three sons, Franklin McCain Jr. of Greensboro, Wendell McCain of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Bert McCain of Charlotte; three sisters, Pecolia Davis of Largo, Md., Warner Copeland of Jacksonville, Fla., and Ishtor Green of San Antonio; and six grandchildren.

David Richmond, Mr. McCain’s college roommate, died in 1990.

Today, the site of the old Woolworth’s store in Greensboro houses the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. A piece of the lunch counter is preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“The best feeling of my life,” Mr. McCain told the Associated Press, was “sitting on that dumb stool.”