Last month we lost the civil rights legend Franklin McCain. His passing makes me wonder, "How can we honor the memory of someone who took such a courageous stand? What is a fitting tribute to someone who impacted the lives of so many?" More than 50 years ago, McCain and three others who became known as the "Greensboro Four" initiated the sit-in movement that led to the desegregation of lunch counters across the South.
Franklin McCain felt called to action at an early age. "When I turned 13 or 14, I saw that... I was still denied the rights and privileges that were afforded citizens of this country," McCain said in a 2010 interview with CNN. By the time he went to college, McCain knew that the persecution his parents and grandparents had faced would be his fate as well if he didn't push for change. Although only a freshman at North Carolina A&T University, Franklin McCain and three of his classmates made a bold decision to challenge segregation. Said McCain, "We had talked to several students about this fractured and unequal democracy and what we wanted to do about it and, quite honestly, most people thought we were crazy."
Crazy indeed. As college students and African Americans, challenging the system could lead to their expulsion from school, arrest and imprisonment, or worse. But McCain explained in 2010 that he and his college roommate David Richmond, along with their friends Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. had grown tired of the indignities that were part of life in the Jim Crow South and were simply, "too angry to be afraid."
On February 1, 1960 the three young men sat at the lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworth's in Greensboro and asked to be served. When the waitress told them, "We don't serve Negroes here," the men showed their receipts for purchases made in the store only minutes earlier and asked why Woolworth's accepted their business in the store but not at the counter. An African American cook emerged from the kitchen and told the young men not to "make trouble." Even the store manager asked the four students to leave, but they stayed put until closing time.
Shortly after the men occupied their seats, an elderly white woman approached the students at the lunch counter. McCain recounted in his 2010 interview with CNN, "I was thinking to myself, she must have knitting needles and scissors in that handbag of hers and they're about to go right through me." But he couldn't have been more wrong. The woman put one hand on McCain's shoulder and one on Richmond's and said, "Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago." Fifty years later, McCain said of the kind words from a stranger, "That was the greatest source of inspiration to me, probably for all my life, primarily because it came from a very unexpected person."
I'm moved by two things in that story of February 1, 1960. One is McCain's courage- the bravery in his decision to directly confront the hypocrisy of segregation and his determination to return to the lunch counter day after day in spite of mounting tensions and threats of violence. The other thing that stays with me is the elderly woman's unexpected kindness- a kindness so profound that McCain was still inspired by it five decades later.
I've often asked myself if I could have done what people like Franklin McCain did. Would I have the strength to let people hurl insults and food at me while I peacefully sat at a lunch counter in protest? Would I have the courage to risk arrest or withstand physical abuse in service to a higher moral principle? To be honest, I don't know if I'm that brave- I've never been put to that kind of test.
But the elderly woman who approached Franklin McCain reminds me that kindness can be as powerful and transforming as courage. She reminds me that our words of acknowledgement, affirmation, and encouragement can have a deeper impact than we might ever know. We might strive for great acts of heroism in our lifetime, but our greatest legacy may be the simple acts of kindness we offer to others. For in that moment of courtesy and civility, we say to another person, "I see you. You matter. You're worth it."
When I was in the classroom, I used to tell my students that if the call to be courageous felt too daunting- they should at least seize the opportunity to be kind, for what matters most is choosing to act. Franklin McCain's fortitude and daring will not be forgotten. His actions sparked a movement that even he did not anticipate. And his story reminds us that simple acts of kindness can have a similar effect.
What acts of kindness have made an impact in your life? How do you encourage students to be courageous and kind? Who are the unsung heroes that have inspired you? How can we honor the legacy of Franklin McCain?
- Click here to access the documentary film February One, about the Greensboro Four.
- Click here to access the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Episode 3: Ain't Scared of Your Jails, about the lunch counter sit-in movement.
- Click here to access Facing History Resources for Eyes on the Prize, including primary source documents and discussion questions.
- Click here to access the CNN article "Sit-in Vet: 'Never Request Permission to Start a Revolution'" from February 1, 2010.