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One Of The Greensboro Four Remembered On A&T Campus

Close to 1,000 people celebrated the life of Franklin Eugene McCain inside of Harrison Auditorium on the North Carolina A&T campus
Jeff Tiberii

Civil rights pioneer Franklin McCain will be laid to rest Friday, following an afternoon funeral in Charlotte. Hundreds of people turned out to North Carolina A&T State University Thursday to remember an historic figure. McCain was one the four teenagers who sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro on February first, 1960.  

McCain is best known for his role in the sit-in movement. To those who knew him well, that’s just a small part of his story. He was a leader, friend, father, active community member, scientist, almost always meticulously prepared and life-long learner. McCain lay in repose Thursday on the campus of North Carolina A&T. The tributes included music and prayer.

“He went on to say “I’m not concerned with your dreams. Dreams put you to sleep. I’m concerned with your nightmares. Nightmares keep you up and awake. Nightmares make you plan and resort to action,” said Claudette Bennett, recalling what McCain said a few years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in. In total, nearly 20 people spoke.

McCain was a man of action. He was joined by three other A&T freshmen on February 1st, 1960. They asked for service at a segregated Woolworth’s Lunch Counter in downtown Greensboro. They were denied service, but set off a chapter of the Civil Rights era. Additional sit-in support came the next day. Within two months there were demonstrations in 54 southern cities.

“Frank McCain was my big brother,” said Joseph McNeil, another of the A&T, or Greensboro, 4 who stood up to segregation. He wasn’t biologically related to McCain.

“He was also my best friend, for 50-some years. I would get these strange phone calls at 3-oclock in the morning. My wife would say ‘who is it? Who’s calling you’ I’d say ‘you know it’s Frank’,” added McNeil.

McNeil has often referred to McCain as a giant of a man. Jibreel Khazan is the other surviving member of the quartet. He was born Ezell Blair, Jr. before changing his name. He says McCain is now watching over his actions.

“Hopefully I’ll see him again he’s going to probably said “did you do what you were supposed to do Junior, Blair? And I’ll say yes ‘I did my best Frank’ and he will say well you can do better.  He would always say you can do better. That’s what I keep in mind,” said Khazan.

McCain had been sick for several weeks before passing away last Thursday night in a Greensboro hospital. Family, friends, supporters and even those who didn’t know him personally turned out to pay their respects.

“I’m reminded of what John Kennedy said about a torch being passed to a new generation. Well truly, a torch is passing to a new generation, because that civil rights generation is moving away. And now younger folk have got to step up and continue the march to true equality of opportunity,” said Kelly Alexander, who knew McCain for decades.

McCain was active in the NAACP, Legal Defense Fund and his church. He made his home in Charlotte, working as a chemist for more than 30 years. He raised three sons with his wife, Bettye Davis. She passed away just more than a year ago. At that time Franklin picked out a poem to be read at his wife’s memorial, titled “When tomorrow starts without me”. His son Franklin, Jr. felt it appropriate to share the reading his father had chosen last year:

When tomorrow starts without me, and I'm not here to see, if the sun should rise and find your eyes all filled with tears for me; I wish so much you wouldn't cry the way you did today, while thinking of the many things we didn't get to say. - Excerpt of poem, ready by Franklin McCain, Jr. in honor of his father

McCain, McNeil as well as Jibreel Khazan (at the time Ezell Blair, Jr.) and David Richmond set-off a series of sit-in demonstrations throughout the Jim Crow south.  McCain will be remembered by history as one of four men who sat down at a segregated Woolworths lunch counter on February 1st, 1960. Family and friends remembered him as an activist, but also as a father, friend and community leader. According to son Franklin Jr., McCain Sr. recently indicated from a hospital bed that his time was coming.

“Daddy always liked you to be prepared. So when that day came on January 9th at 10:26 pm when he took his last breath; one year and seven days after our mother; I knew, we knew that he was going to be OK,” said Franklin McCain Jr.

McCain’s funeral is at 2 p.m. Friday in Charlotte. He will be buried in Oak Lawn Park Cemetery.

He was 73.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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