It’s been more than 53 years since Feb. 1, 1960, the day when Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) bought a few things from the F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C., sat down at the lunch counter, asked to be served and were refused because of their race.
The actions of the four North Carolina A&T State University served as an inspiration, part of the sit-ins and civil rights efforts that changed the country.
The significance of that day has been honored and celebrated — with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum opening in the shell of that long-closed Greensboro Woolworth exactly 50 years later and a small section of the lunch counter on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But in 2013, are the results of that historic youth-led challenge being rolled back in North Carolina, the state where it began?
Franklin McCain said he believes they are.
“Unconscionable,” he called the wave of conservative legislation pushed through this year by Republican super-majorities in the state House and Senate, with mostly support from GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. “I would love to sit here and be telling you today that we’ve conquered a whole lot of things,” he said in a recent conversation with theGrio in his Charlotte home. “It irritates me that things that we thought we solved 40, 50 years ago have raised their ugly heads again.”
”You can smell instances of grandfather clauses almost again,” he said of proposed sweeping changes in election laws that would require limited proof of ID, cut early voting and eliminate same-day registration, straight-ticker voting and a high school civics program that registers students to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays. “They’re trying to keep you away from the polls … developing solutions for problems that don’t exist.”
“Here comes the poll tax; here comes the black codes again. It’s a nightmare. Look at what they’re trying to do to women’s health and abortions and things like the unemployment security – just a little bit of money for people who happen to be out of work.”
“This is heartless,” McCain said. “I’m surprised that this kind of thinking got this far. … It’s frightening as well as disappointing.”
McCain, who went on to receive degrees in chemistry and biology from A&T, attend graduate school in Greensboro and work as a chemist for the Celanese Corporation in Charlotte, is far more than an image frozen in time. The 71-year-old, now retired, has lived a lifetime of activism, raising money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, mentoring students from the elementary to university level and serving on community and educational boards, including the board of governors for the University of North Carolina system.
He has advised leaders of the “Moral Monday” protests and arrests that followed the proposed changes in voting rules and abortion restrictions and the cuts in unemployment and Medicaid benefits and public education budgets. McCain said he sees parallels between the diverse coalition that showed up weekly at the capital in Raleigh – a final “Mass Social Justice Interfaith Rally” was planned for Monday — and the demonstrations of the 1960’s.
“I’ve talked to Barber [North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Dr. William Barber] about it,” McCain said, and told him “‘what you’re doing is great, and I endorse it.’”
His advice to Barber at the start of the protests: “You will start out with hordes and hordes of people interested in what you’re doing. And if you aren’t careful, you will be out there with two or three people a month from now. So don’t become disgusted or discouraged. Our history is just replete with examples of just a handful of people who are responsible for making change. You’ve got the same obligation as well as the opportunity today to do that.
“Don’t let up. You are going to be criticized, even by people who ought to be on your side. Forget about it; put your blinders on and keep your eyes on your goals. You know that it’s going to be tough; you know that you won’t have unanimity of thought about what you do and how you do it. Forget about it.”
“Anytime the governor says, ‘You know, I wish these people would stop this,’ I said hallelujah. That is the first sign of progress.”
McCain said he had hoped the country would have moved on to what he called “phase two, with the greater vision and the greater mission of trying to improve society overall,” with health care and better education and employment opportunities. “But we’ve been thrown back to survival, to the basics. It’s unfair. It’s just not right. That’s what I’m concerned about today.”
If he were in the middle of the current fight, McCain said he would take an ad out in a couple of papers in large metropolitan areas, start it out talking about North Carolina’s pleasant climate, available land and all the reasons why it would be a great place to relocate your family or business.
But then, he said, the ad would list the seven or eight things that might concern anyone contemplating a move, from taking money out of public education and public welfare to making it more difficult for people to vote.
“I would end it by saying this is the whole truth about North Carolina. If you’re still convinced that you want to come here, we welcome you.”
McCain said he thinks media outlets in the country would pick up the story and every chamber of commerce would run over to Raleigh and say, “‘you’ve got to cut this nonsense out.’ That little bit of embarrassment, that little bit of threat would get an awful lot of folks off the sidelines who have the potential to make a significant difference.”
Repeating the lessons of the 1960s, McCain said, “Hit them in the purse; hit them where it hurts.”
Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3