Franklin McCain, Woolworth sit-in organizer and former NCCU trustee, dies

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 06:47 PM

Almost 54 years after the “Greensboro Four” debated into the night of Jan. 31, 1960, whether they should march to the Woolworth store the next day and sit at the “all-white” counter, one of those four men who contributed to the momentum of a national civil rights moment has died.

Franklin E. McCain, one of the organizers of the F.W. Woolworth sit-in movement in downtown Greensboro, died Jan. 9 after a brief illness at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro. He was 71.

McCain was born in Union County, N.C., in 1942, and raised in D.C. He would graduate from North Carolina A&T State University in 1964 with a degree in chemistry and biology.

While he was a student in Greensboro, he participated in negotiations between student protestors, Woolworth managers and the Human Relations Commission, according to UNC-Greensboro library archives.

In a Greensboro Public Library oral history record dated back to Oct. 20, 1979, McCain said he and other activists working beside him stressed the importance of negotiations rather than violence.

“A lot of people saw negotiating as submission,” McCain said. “You know, ‘We've got them on the run now, so let's keep them on the run. Don't give them a chance to regroup their forces. Don't negotiate.’ And of course that's great, you know, if you're in the middle of a real vacuum and you've got the enemy on the run. But that wasn't that kind of battle at all. Yes, there was a prize to be won, but we weren't going to win it by just eliminating the enemy. We wanted to convert the enemy more than anything else.”

McCain also said he and others spread the sit-in movement to additional all-white Greensboro locations, such as Kress, drive-ins, Eckerd Drug, the O Henry Hotel, Hot Shoppes on Summit Avenue, and the Apple House.

“Not (at) any of those places did we receive service,” McCain said.

He ended up marrying a fellow participant in the Greensboro civil rights movement, the late Bettye Davis, a Bennett College alumna who passed away earlier this year.

Documentary filmmaker Steven Channing reached out to McCain in 2001 for his project, “February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four,” in which he interviewed the sit-in activists and their family members.

“We didn’t go down to Woolworth to save the world,” McCain had said. “Manhood and dignity, that’s what we were after.”

Channing said he remembers when the documentary premiered April of 2003 at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. About 800 people attended, and almost half of them were students. The middle school-aged students went wild when they realized McCain was in the audience.

“They gave him a reception like he was The Beatles,” Channing said. “They were so thrilled that, wow, the actual guy was here.”


During the question-and-answer portion, a student stood up and asked McCain, “If I served you that day (at Woolworth), what would you have ordered?”

“He laughed and he said, ‘I just wanted a piece of pie,’” Channing recalled. McCain would go on to say, “Years later, I went back and ate there, and you know what? The food wasn’t that good there anyway.”

After graduation, McCain worked for the Celanese Corporation in Charlotte for 35 years and he served on the company’s equality committee to help provide opportunities for minority and female employees, according to the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2013.

He served on N.C. Central University’s Board of Trustees for two terms, from 1993 until 2000, when he went on to serve on the UNC system’s Board of Governors, according to NCCU. He also had served as the chair of North Carolina A&T’s Board of Trustees.

One of his three sons, Wendell McCain, currently serves as a NCCU trustee.

“North Carolina Central University has lost a great friend and advocate with the passing of a civil rights hero and advocate for education, Dr. Franklin E. McCain,” said NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White in a statement. “We will keep his family, the North Carolina A&T State University community, and all those who were touched by his great life in our thoughts and prayers.”

William G. Smith, a former chair of the NCCU Board of Trustees and current vice chancellor for institutional advancement at Elizabeth City State University, said when he served on the board with McCain, the man did his homework. He was passionate about NCCU, even though his degree was from A&T.

“You could share your views with him, and if he agreed with you, it was OK, and if he didn’t, he could tell you why he disagreed with you,” Smith said.

McCain also spent more than 25 years as chair and vice chair of the North Carolina regional committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, always pushing for equal rights.

In an Aug. 26, 1990, article in the Greensboro News & Record, McCain spoke about the discriminatory practices of private clubs in the South.

In the article, McCain said, “What we need, just as we did at the time of the sit-ins, are civic and business leaders not afraid to stand up for what’s right.”