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DA's real-life civil rights roots: passing on the wisdom of one of the Greensboro Four
Posted 02/04/2016 04:46PM

"I have some hot coffee here. If you guys don't get off these stools, I'm going to pour it on you!" bellowed the man, as he loomed over the sitting students. "You're not supposed to be on these stools — these stools are only for white people."

The scene, recreated on the stage of Durham Academy Middle School's Taylor Hall, was one that the man, Wendell McCain, knew well. A son of the late civil rights legend Franklin McCain, he heard often about his father's experience as one of the Greensboro Four — the brave college students who launched the sit-in movement that resulted in the desegregation of lunch counters across the nation.

Wendell McCain, father of DA eighth-grader Davis and sixth-grader Charles, addressed his sons' classmates on Feb. 1, exactly 56 years after his father and three other North Carolina A&T State University students took their seats at the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store in Greensboro. In a video shown to students before McCain's talk, they heard from the elder McCain, who died in 2014.

He described the shock clear on the faces of fellow patrons as he and the other three students sat down at the store's "whites only" lunch counter. After ordering coffee, they were denied service and implored to leave. And then a police officer made his presence known.

"He started to pace the counter back and forth, and as he walked back and forth, he started to pound his nightstick in his hand," Franklin McCain recalled in the video. "But after he paced three times with his nightstick, I said to myself, we've got him. He really doesn't know what to do."

The students endured threats and insults from store workers and bystanders, yet they returned day after day, bringing more protesters with them each day. Their persistence was finally rewarded on July 25, 1960, when the Woolworth corporate office ordered the Greensboro store to give in.

"As time went on, it ceased to matter because you could come in around lunchtime and you could see alternating, almost, black-white-black-white patrons, and nobody paid much attention to it," McCain continued in the video. "And you'd ask yourself — I did quite often — what was all of the fuss about, what was all of the mistreatment about, what was this thing that people were so afraid of?"

In his talk at the Middle School, Wendell McCain passed on a few lessons from his father, including to "never, ever pre-judge people." One thing that wasn't included in the video, he said, was that on the very first day of the sit-in, an older white woman was among the first people to voice her support for their efforts.

"Most of us would say, who would expect a 60-year-old white woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South with racial segregation to be supportive?" McCain said. "So my father always told us to never judge someone based on what you see. You have to judge them by their heart, the content of their character and the actions that they express toward you and others."

Another lesson that his father imparted was to be willing to stand up for what's right and to be unafraid of starting a revolution in the process. He encouraged the students to think about how they might take a stand against injustices they see in our present world.

Even after meeting such towering figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malcom X, "the thing that excited my father the most was the optimism, the excitement, the drive and the lack of fear that people like you in this room have," McCain said. "He would say that in no other generation I've ever seen, there's a level of inclusiveness and a desire to actually make a difference in this world."

It's a desire that Charles McCain feels deeply. He became aware of his grandfather's place in history when he was 7 or 8.

"It makes me feel like I should do something great, like he did," the sixth-grader said, "whether it's related to racial things or to stop people from bullying or doing other things that make people feel bad."

Seventh-grader Grace Brooks said it was meaningful to hear about Franklin McCain's life from someone who knew him well. She spoke of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana after court-ordered integration in New Orleans.

"She's a long-time-ago historical figure that I've always looked up to but will probably never meet," Brooks said. "But it's another thing to meet even just one of their relatives. It makes it more real. This is an actual person, not just a hero in a story."

Cecilia Moore, a sixth-grader, had the opportunity to meet Franklin McCain when he delivered what she described as a "really inspiring" speech on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill a few years ago. She said she was grateful that Wendell McCain was able to share his father's message with the Middle School student body.

"I think that was a real inspiration for the students who were listening," she said. "I think it could be something that inspires them to do great things one day."

And there's a real need for young people to do great things, Wendell McCain said as he wrapped up his talk. The country still has a ways to go before his father's vision of equal treatment for all people is realized. He's experienced discrimination in his own life, he said, recounting his experience of being pulled over by a policeman for no discernible reason and treated unfairly.

"When there are people who have a preference for a different sexual orientation [who are treated unfairly], when there are young people getting killed by folks who are supposed to protect us, when there are young people who are being bullied by their classmates and committing suicide — we still don't have an inclusive world, where we're all able to express ourselves and be comfortable," he said. "Until we get to that day, I think he [Franklin McCain] would feel like we have a long way to go."

Literary resources for teaching young children about the sit-in:

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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