Obstructing ‘wheels of injustice’

Jan. 12, 2014 @ 06:35 PM

Not quite 54 years ago, four freshmen at North Carolina A & T University sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro.

What today would be an unremarkable moment (if “five and dimes” still had lunch counters) was on Feb. 1, 1960 not only remarkable, it would prove to be a hinge of history.

Those four young men were challenging with their presence – and ultimately, their perseverance – the decades-old policy, sanctioned by Jim Crow laws in North Carolina and across the South – that Woolworth’s, like lunch counters and restaurants across the region, would serve only white people.

Franklin McCain was one of those four.  Mr. McCain – who would go on to a long career with Celanese Corporation and would serve on the N. C. Central University Board of Trustees and the University of North Carolina Board of Governors – died Friday. His death leaves only two survivors of the “Greensboro Four” – Joseph McNeil and Jibreel Khazan (then known as Ezell Blair Jr.). David Richmond died in 1990.

We’ve noted before that the generation that as young men and women led the civil rights movement of the 1960s is succumbing to human mortality. Fortunately, Mr. McCain’s recollections of that day and the tumultuous days that followed  have been amply recorded.

Still, it is sobering to realize that the ranks of those who can bear witness to the terrible injustices of the segregation era are thinning. Seen through the prism of today, it may be difficult for later generations, black and white, to grasp the courage and conviction of men like Mr. McCain and his fellow would-be Woolworth diners. Six months after the sit-in, Woolworth’s dropped its whites-only policy, and in the ensuing years Jim Crow customs and laws would tumble.

Mr. McCain has said his group was not necessarily bent on making history. “We didn’t go down to Woolworth to save the world,” McCain said in an interview with documentary maker Steven Channing of Durham.  “Manhood and dignity, that’s what we were after.”

They not only grasped manhood and dignity, they fanned a social revolution that would secure those for millions to whom they had been denied.  “When told they would not be served, they refused to leave and this sparked a movement throughout the South,” civil rights leader James Farmer wrote in an essay on the (Greensboro) News and Record's website. “Black students in colleges throughout the South saw it on television they said ‘Hey man, look at what our brothers and sisters in Greensboro are doing. What's wrong with us? Why don't we go out and do the same thing?’ And they went out, so it swept across the South like the proverbial wildfire, with students rejecting segregation. With their very bodies they obstructed the wheels of injustice.”

We remember Mr. McCain for his long service, especially to NCCU. But we remember him especially for that moment when he and three other young men risked physical harm – or worse – to obstruct the wheels of injustice.