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Interview: Franklin McCain

Franklin McCain was one of the original Greensboro Four who—along with Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—started the lunch-counter sit-ins at Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C. on Feb. 1, 1960.

He was interviewed on 11/23/09 by Suzanne Bilyeu, Senior Editor, The New York Times Upfront.

UPFRONT: What it was like for black people living in Greensboro, or most Southern cities, in 1960?
McCain: Well, during the fifties and sixties, and even before that of course, things were not very good at all. I was taught that we live in a democracy and certain things accrue to you as an individual, and I found out that wasn't true at all. It's what I termed "the Big Lie" by my parents and grandparents.

It was said to me, "Franklin, if you do all the things that you're supposed to do, then you'll be no different from everybody else and you'll have the same privileges and advantages."

It didn't take me long to figure out that wasn't very true at all. Like going to school and getting good grades and believing the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, believing in the Ten Commandments as your code of ethics, and being respectful to your elders. All those are great things. There's nothing wrong with them, and I subscribed to all those principles.

And I found out, "Hey, it's business as usual." Meaning that I was discriminated against because of my skin color and no other reason. Of course, everybody's familiar with the separate water fountain. And the thing that's really hard to take is the public library that was off limits to you. Public parks—public means everybody but not all.

UPFRONT: And even hospitals.
McCain: Hospitals! Yes. Absolutely. Black people had to go miles and miles out of their way for emergency treatment, and for regular treatment, simply because the so-called white hospitals would not accept them. And they would not accept black doctors on the staff, either. Any place of public accommodation that you could probably think of was strictly off limits to you. Ranging from the front of the bus to any kind of cafˇ or restaurant or hotel, amusement park. And kids today find it hard to believe: "You couldn't go to a McDonalds?"

UPFRONT: Or to movie theaters.
McCain: Even if you could go in, you had to sit up in what we call the crow's nest. That's way, way up high away from everything. And if you could go to some of these eating places, they'd ask people to come to the back door and do takeout— which I thought was just unprincipled.

And I thought that without manhood and without dignity, man can't live. He absolutely can't. You only exist. I found the whole thing not only embedded with hypocrisy, but just unbelievable.

So unbelievable that my children didn't even believe it. They thought it was all war stories, old wives' tales that I used to tell them. They couldn't get their minds around the fact that people could be discriminated against, kept out of public places, simply because of the color.

I felt there was something choking me all the time—this stifling feeling. I didn't feel fulfilled, and I didn't feel as though I got the biggest value out of my hard work in going to school and just being a good citizen.

And I could not for the love of me understand how my grandparents and parents, who were educated people, could live in a system like that for so long. When you're 15 or 16, you don't understand that.

UPFRONT: You thought that some of your elders had just been too passive for too long?
McCain: Yes, absolutely. I really felt as though they had let us down.

UPFRONT: Had you heard of some of the earlier sit-ins that had taken place in other cities?
McCain: No, actually I hadn't heard of the other sit-ins that had taken place until after February 1st, 1960.

UPFRONT: What gave you and your friends the idea to sit in at Woolworth's?
McCain: Since September of 1960, we sort of had the same things on our mind. We got together and discussed democracy and segregation, integration every night. Anything but study! And that seemed like a good alternative. It just happened that we were brought up with the same kind of outlook, and we shared the same frustrations as well.

And one night the thought occurred to us that, "You know, maybe we're the hypocrites. And maybe we're the ones that ought to be chastised, who ought to have to 'fess up. Because we've got more opportunities and more chances than our parents ever had to do things."

And when I thought about it that way, I didn't like myself.

The thought occurred to us on January 31st, Sunday night, that by gosh we've got to do something. We've got to do something other than just engage in bull sessions every night for four or five hours because we are letting a lot of people down, including ourselves. We're not studying as much as we ought, that's why our parents sent us here. And at the same time, we're not doing some of the same things that we criticize other people for. We've been "armchair activists" so far.

So we said, "Well, you know what we have to do? We have to attack the system. And we have to attack the system so that people can really understand and appreciate it."

We thought that there was no better place to attack the system than where you saw a dichotomy of treatment of people. And the real dichotomy that we saw was the five-and-ten store. Like a Woolworth's. Like you saw all across this country. And you could be treated one way in Philadelphia or New York City. Then the same person could drive to Richmond, Virginia, and be treated just the opposite. You could shop at 49 out of 49 counters in Philadelphia, and you could shop at 48 out of 49 in Richmond. That was not right. We thought, "Here's something that's not defensible." It is a place to demonstrate what we're talking about and to try to make some change. So that's really what made us do what we did.

UPFRONT: So that's why you targeted Woolworth's initially, rather than a fancier restaurant.
McCain: Yes, indeed. You're not good enough if you want to get a coffee and a doughnut, but you can spend all the money you want to buy school supplies in the same store.

UPFRONT: Did any civil rights organization encourage you to go to Woolworth's, or was it something you decided among yourselves?
McCain: It was something we decided among ourselves. Of course, over the past 25 years there have been organizations said, "We encouraged those boys," and that sort of thing. I always say that success has a thousand partners and failure's an orphan.

UPFRONT: Did the four of you rehearse what you were going to say in Woolworths?
McCain: We did indeed, because we pretty well knew what the response was going to be.

UPFRONT: What did you fear was the worst thing that could happen?
McCain: I thought my days as a student were going to be over. If I was lucky, I would stay in jail for a long, long time—and if I weren't so lucky I'd come back to campus in a pine box. I really felt that was a possibility.

I felt this could be the last day of my life, but I felt it was well worth it. Because to continue to live the way we had been living, I question that. It's an incomplete life. I'd made up my mind. We all had decided that we absolutely had no choice.

UPFRONT: Walk us through that day when you went to Woolworth's.
McCain: We went into Woolworth's about ten past four and moseyed a around the store five to ten minutes. It seemed like an hour. We bought some school supplies and kept our receipts.

Then [Joseph] McNeil and I were walking around together, maybe some 10 or 15 feet away from the lunch counter. We just looked at each other, not saying a word and then we looked at the counter and made our way to our seats. [Ezell] Blair and [David] Richmond were some distance behind us.

Then we all sat there and just kind of looked around. I've never had a feeling like that in my life. I often say to people, "Just sitting on a dumb stool." Hadn't even been served yet. But it was the most wonderful feeling. The most relieving and the most cleansing feeling that I ever felt. It's the kind of feeling that I'll never have in my life again. Simply pure and simply worthy of my presence on this earth. And I really can't articulate it to people for them to have the full appreciation for what that felt like.

And I wish I could have this feeling again today but I think it's not possible.

The wait staff just kind of looked at us in amazement and passed us by two or three times and then we asked, "May we be served."

One lady stopped and said, "Well, I'm sorry we don't serve you here."

We said, "Well, we beg to disagree with you. You do serve us here, and we've got purchases and receipts to prove it."

She says, "I mean just at this lunch counter."

We said, "Well, what's different about this lunch counter as opposed to the counter where you buy pencils?"

"Oh, this is where you eat," I said, "Well, what's different about it? We're the same people, your same customers."

"Well, I just can't serve you here."

"Why not?"

"Well, it's just our custom."

"Then you'll agree that the custom is wrong. It doesn't make sense to you."

"Well, I don't know. But if you'd really like to eat, there's a place downstairs in the back where you can stand up and make your order."

"Well, we want to eat here, the same place where we made our purchases." "I just can't serve you."

I said, "Well, find somebody who can serve us."

So she summons the manager.

But just before the manager came—just to show you how ingrained things were—there was a black woman working at the lunch counter who came up and said, "You boys know you aren't supposed to be here. You're troublemakers, and that's what creates problems for all of us."

And at that moment, this 17-year-old boy hated her. But as I grew older I learned to appreciate what her position was. She was threatened, her way of life was threatened. And I hold no malice today for the server.

UPFRONT: What did the Woolworth's manager, Curly Harris, say to you?
McCain: The manager came out and told us, "Boys, I can't serve you here."

And we went through the same conversation with him.

He says, "Well, you know, that's just the way it is. And [Woolworth's headquarters in] New York wouldn't let us do it even if we wanted to."

And of course later, we found out Woolworth's position was do whatever you want.

UPFRONT: Their position was to "abide by local custom."
McCain: And if Curly wanted to step out, I think they might have said, "OK, Curly are you sure? Is that going to hurt your business?"

But it never got that far. He blamed the whole thing on Woolworth's.

UPFRONT: So just one important distinction I want to make is that, at least in Greensboro, there wasn't really a city ordinance or a law against integrated eating places? It was just local custom.
McCain: No, there was not. It was just local custom. "This isn't done here."

And I think that's the reason the local cop came in ten minutes later. He looked at us and gave us the evil eye, and he turned as red as a beet. Then he started to pace behind the stools. He pulled his nightstick out and started slapping it in his hand and I said to myself, "My gosh, this is it. This is how it's going to end up."

The thing that I knew, and I was prepared for, is that my head was certainly going to be split open. The only thing I didn't know was exactly when. But I knew it was going to happen. And I was quite prepared for that.

UPFRONT: When did it become apparent that they were just going to let you sit there?
McCain: I think they became paralytic, because Curly Harris said something to the policeman as he went to the other end of the counter. They had a two-minute conversation. And both looked exasperated. They looked totally confused.

That's when I determined, "Well, I don't think much is going to happen with these guys. They don't know what to do."

McNeil and I both shared the same sentiment.

The police officer just pounded that nightstick in his hand. I knew that that was a sign of frustration: "Hey, they aren't breaking any laws that I'm aware of. No disruption. They're being courteous. No screaming and yelling."

So it was just paralytic on his part. That's how he was.

But I suppose in any instance like this there's always a bright spot to look for. There was this little old white lady about two hundred years old. I remember her fifty years later just like it was yesterday. She looked at us, and then she continued to look at us. Then she finished her coffee and doughnut.

She had this big bag, and I imagined that she had knitting needles and scissors in it. She strode over to our seats and I said, "Dear God, this is it. I don't know if she's going to claw my brains out, or spit on me, or call me some nasty names. I'm prepared to deal with all of them."

She put her hand on my shoulder, and I'm thinking, "Where's the razor blades?"

And she said in a calm voice, "Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret you didn't do this ten years ago."

That was one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened in my life. And not only that, I learned a lesson for life that I am still reminded of every day almost when I meet people. And that lesson says to me, "Franklin don't you ever have pre-formed opinions or discriminate against anybody because of their color, because of their age, race, or where they happen to come from. You've got to get to know folk before you have any opinions about them."

And how wrong I was about this little old lady, because typically you would expect 1960s Southern town, black boys acting "out of place." What do you expect for that? Scorn! That's what you'd expect.

You didn't expect anything good or any encouragement. And that was what was so wonderful about it.

UPFRONT: So you left the store around 5:30?
McCain: Actually, they closed the store a little earlier. Because by this time the store was full of onlookers. They weren't doing any business. Still full of people but cash registers weren't ringing up. All eyes were on us. And the store manager announced that the store was going to close a few minutes early.

I said to McNeil, "You know, I think we'd better leave too, because the last thing we want is for them to lock us up in the store and then charge us for breaking and entering."

And we knew that could happen, too. From that point on, we were feeling so high and so good that we said to ourselves, "We'll be back tomorrow as soon as this counter opens."

And we strode out of the store, and it seemed like a million people out on the sidewalk. I think the word had gone all up and down Elm Street. What was going on?

And we strode back to our campus feeling very good and thought, "Well to do this thing successfully we are going to need some help to make even a bigger presence. And we've got to find some students."

We summoned most of the leadership of organizations of student council, student government at our school. We said, "We want to talk to you, tell you about something that we've done. We need your help."

We spent thirty to forty-five minutes expressing to them what we'd done and why. And you know, it took another hour before we could convince even twenty percent of them that we'd done what we'd done. They absolutely didn't believe us. And we asked if they would come downtown with us the following day, on Tuesday and sit in with us. Most of these were upperclassmen, ninety percent of them. And they said, "Oh yes. We will, we will!"

UPFRONT: How many did come back with you the next morning?
McCain: Zero. None. We picked up two friends who lived in the same dormitory. So there were two additional friends to come with us the second day.

UPFRONT: On what day did a couple of dozen students join the sit-in?
McCain: The third day. And the third day we had two [white] students from UNC Woman's College. They came, in fact, even before the students at Bennett College [a college for black women] came.

But [the women from UNC-WC] were told after a couple of days, "You will not go back. Because if you do, you will be summarily dismissed from this school. Expelled." They did not come back.

It was Thursday or Friday before we began to pick up twenty-five maybe thirty-five students. And Saturday we had more students than we could accommodate in Woolworth's. And we decided on the spur of the moment that Kress's, which was a half block down the street, shouldn't be exempt. So we sat down at Kress's as well on Saturday.

UPFRONT: I've read accounts that said you had something like six hundred people crowded around the counter on a Saturday. Some of them were white kids who were—
McCain: The hecklers. In fact, most of these white kids who were the hecklers were people who came into town on Saturday, and I would wager that more than half were rural folks. They really weren't from Greensboro.

UPFRONT: And then there was a bomb threat on the weekend, and there was sort of a truce called. Is that how it happened?
McCain: We had a bomb threat, and we did call a truce and I learned something about that too: Never do that again. If the opposition wants to have a cool-off period, don't do it. Because they feel threatened, and they're on the run—and you should keep them on the run. But we trying to be more than fair. We even asked the [A&T] student body, we had a big rally, what shall we do? It wasn't clear-cut that we ought to have a truce. I would guess the split was something like forty-five, fifty-five. And what you do also when you have a truce is you lose some of your momentum, and that did happen to us.

UPFRONT: George Roach, the mayor of Greensboro, formed a committee mostly of local businessmen. Did they actually negotiate with the students? Or did they just talk among themselves?
McCain: They really wanted the students to send representatives and Spencer Love, who was president of Burlington Industries [then a major textile company] is the guy who really wanted this committee and not necessarily the Chamber of Commerce or businesses. Spencer Love, he's the most powerful man in Greensboro. And his interest was that he didn't want a bad image or a bad mark on his city. That was his total interest. Imagery. And A&T's president, Dr. Warmoth Gibbs, was on that committee as well.

And as a sidebar, Spencer and Dr. Gibbs went to Harvard together. In fact, they were roommates. And Spencer thought he had a special in with Dr. Gibbs and said, "Look, you really need to stop these kids and bring them back to the campus. Let them study which is the reason they came here."

And our president said, "Spencer, at A&T, we teach our students how to think and don't tell them what to think."

And it was I think one of the more courageous stands taken by a semi-public official during those times. Particularly when in other cities, college presidents were being fired, were being told to keep your mouth shut or you're out of the door, that sort of thing.

UPFRONT: Were there any members of the black community who disapproved of the sit-ins?
McCain: Oh yes, indeed. Most of them were merchants, again because of the self-interest, and there were a few ministers in the city and other folk who were against what we were doing because it was disruptive.

UPFRONT: What approach did they think was appropriate? Just wait around?
McCain: "Oh, we can talk through these things". And we quickly reminded them that they'd been talking through things their whole lives, and it had gotten them nowhere. Not everybody in the African-American community by any means was pro-sit-in or with us. There's no question about that. But of course, you can't find anybody today who would say that.

UPFRONT: Once the sit-ins started, and they started to pick up in other cities, what role did civil rights organizations like the NAACP and CORE play?
McCain: I think the NAACP had far less of a role than CORE. And CORE's primary mission was to teach people techniques and teach people about the advantage of non-violence. But remember you're talking about seventeen to twenty-one year old folks and they did not want to be led around by established organizations—by adults who thought they had all the answers, but in our sight never made much progress. So because of that, they were not given very prominent places for a long time in any city.

UPFRONT: So it was really a student-led thing.
McCain: It was a student-led thing and that's why you had the formation of SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinatng Committee].

UPFRONT: How many days did you, personally, take part in the sit-ins?
McCain: Initially, every day.

UPFRONT: How did your participation in the sit-ins affect the rest of your life at that time?
McCain: Oh, I had virtually no other life. And that's for a long time. It did affect my grades.

UPFRONT: I can imagine it's being all-consuming.
McCain: Absolutely all-consuming. Thirty-six hours a day. The good thing about sitting in is that it allowed you the opportunity to study. You could bring your books. And I said the same thing, "Well, if I go to jail a long time, I can even be a better student." [laughs] So that's the second reason jail didn't frighten me at all."

UPFRONT: Did you ever go back and eat at Woolworth's after they integrated the lunch counter?
McCain: No, I didn't eat there. But I went back that week. I went back the week that they had begun serving black people at Woolworths. I did eat at Meyer's [Department Store] Tea Room. Woolworth's integrated after Meyer's Tea Room.

UPFRONT: Was there ever a time that having participated in the sit-ins cause you any difficulty later on, difficulty in getting a job?
McCain: Yes, that did affect me. I learned about it after the fact. People said, "No, no, no. You don't want that guy. You're gonna have hell on your hands." So I was excluded from a few things, but I reckon that's the price you pay and it's a price well paid as far as I'm concerned.

UPFRONT: Tell me what your main career was.
McCain: I started out as a research chemist at Celanese Corporation and I ended up as a marketing executive, a sales executive.

UPFRONT: They're turning the old Woolworth's building in Greensboro into a civil rights museum. Have you had a chance to take a look at it?
McCain: I was there a couple weeks ago. It looks impressive what they've done. I'll be there for the opening on February 1st.

UPFRONT: Could you ever have imagined that that first sit-in would start such amazing things?
McCain: Absolutely not. I'd love to tell you yes, I envisioned it all—but no.

UPFRONT: How did you feel, a few days after you began sitting in at Woolworth's, when you heard that other sit-ins were taking place all over North Carolina?
McCain: I felt it was the most wonderful thing in the world. I really did. I was astonished, surprised. But so pleased because I thought, "This has got to help the Greensboro effort." My only concern was, "Dear God, let it still remain non-violent." Because I really felt that was our secret weapon.

UPFRONT: Did the Greensboro police actually handle things fairly well?
McCain: They did. In fact, we got to the point in Greensboro where we could call up the police chief and tell him we were going to march and he would say, "Okay, we'll make provisions for that to accommodate you." That's the kind of relationship we had, but I think that was kind of imposed by people like Spencer Love and the Chamber of Commerce. They want business there.

UPFRONT: There's been a lot of progress made since 1960, but what, in your opinion, still needs to happen in terms of race relations and equality in this country?
McCain: I look around at schools and I look at the disparity in the performance of African-Americans and Hispanics versus whites, and I look at the kinds of schools they still attend, and I look at employment. Just pick those few things. And I look at health disparities. They are so, so great. It seems like we've retrogressed more than anything else.

UPFRONT: What advice would you have for young people today who are seeking social justice?
McCain: My advice to them would be act on your conscience and don't wait for the masses to come and help you—because they ain't coming. Trust me, they ain't coming. If there's something you want to address, go ahead and do it. You've got not only yourself to depend on, but you've got history on your side.

Our history is replete with examples of where one person, or just a small number of people, made revolutions. Multitudes don't make revolutions. They participate in them. That's what I say to young people. Don't get frustrated because you don't have those twenty people you needed to address something or to accomplish something. And I would also tell them absolutely never, never ask permission to start a revolution, because you will never get it. People hate change. They despise it. And they despise it because they become anxious.

I would also tell them that if there are things they are troubled with, or things that they want to do—even though there seem to be obstacles that are insurmountable—the facts don't ever matter if the dream is big enough. Facts never matter. If the facts mattered, we would all be calling ourselves today subjects of the Crown. Just a handful of dirt farmers with muskets turned around the mighty British army. And if you don't believe that, ask the people of India how they kicked the British out of their country. Ask Gandhi.

UPFRONT: Was Gandhi an inspiration for you?
McCain: Absolutely. Absolutely. My greatest inspiration. My two heroes—and I've got very few heroes aside from my mother—are Gandhi and Christ.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, January 18, 2010)