Howell Raines interview with sit-in participant Franklin McCain, 1960. In Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested, 1977.
[Howell Raines] It was one of those group friendships that spring up among college freshmen. In the first semester at all-black North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, he [Franklin McCain] and Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, and Joseph McNeil became inseparable. They would study together, eat together, and “as young freshmen often do in college dormitories late at night, when they finish studying or when they want to cop out from studying… resort to the old-fashion type bull session.”
Through the fall, their talks continued. He remembers them as “elementary philosophers,” young idealists talking about justice and injustice, hypocrisy, how imperfectly their society embodied its own ideals. Slowly their talks swung to a debate as old as philosophy itself: at what point does the moral man act against injustice? “… I think the thing that precipitated the sit-in, the idea of the sit-in, more than anything else, was that little bit of incentive and that little bit of courage that each of us instilled within each other.”
[McCain] The planning process was on Sunday night, I remember it quite well. I think it was Joseph who said, “It's time that we take some action now. We've been getting together, and we've been, up to this point, still like most people we've talked about for the past few weeks or so-that is, people who talk a lot but, in fact, make very little action.” After selecting the technique, then we said, “Let's go down and just ask for service.” It certainly wasn't titled a “sit-in” or a “sit-down” at that time. “Let's just go down to Woolworth's tomorrow and ask for service, and the tactic is going to be simply this: we'll just stay there.” We never anticipated being served, certainly, the first day anyway. “We'll stay until we get served.” And I think Ezell said, “Well, you know that might be weeks that might be months that might be never.” And I think it was the consensus of the group, we said, “Well, that's just the chance we'll have to take.”
What's likely to happen? Now, I think that was a question that all of us asked ourselves…. What's going to happen once we sit down? Of course, nobody had the answers. Even your wildest imagination couldn't lead you to believe what would, in fact, happen.
[Raines] Why Woolworth's?
[McCain] They advertise in public media, newspapers, radios, television, that sort of thing. They tell you to come in: “Yes, buy the toothpaste; yes, come in and buy the notebook paper… No, we don't separate your money in this cash register; but, no, please don't' step down to the hot dog stand….” The whole system of course, was unjust, but that just seemed like insult added to injury. That was just like pouring salt into an open wound. That's inviting you to do something….
Once getting there… we did make purchases of schools supplies and took the patience and time to get receipts for our purchases, and Joseph and I went over to the counter and asked to be served coffee and doughnuts. As anticipated, the reply was “I'm sorry, we don't serve you here.” And of course we said, “We just beg to disagree with you. We've in fact already been served; you've served us already and that's just not quite true.” The attendant or waitress was a little bit dumbfounded, just didn't know what to say under circumstances like that. And we said, “We wonder why you'd invite us in to serve us at one counter and deny service at another. If this is a private club or private concern, then we believe you ought to sell membership cards and sell only to persons who have a membership card. If we don't' have a card, then we'd know pretty well that we shouldn't' come in or even attempt to come in.” That didn't go over too well, simply because I don't really think she understood what we were talking about, and for the second reason, she had no logical response to a statement like that. And the only thing that an individual in her case or position could do is, of course, call the manager. [Laughs] Well, at this time, I think we were joined by Dave Richmond and Ezell Blair at the counter with us, after that dialogue.
[Raines] Were you afraid at this point?
[McCain] Oh, hell yes, no question about that. [Laughs] At that point there was a policeman who had walked in off the street, who was pacing the aisle… behind us, where we were seated, with his club in his hand; just sort of knocking it gusted. And you had the feeling that he didn't know what he hell to do. You had the feeling that this is the first time that this big bad man with the gun in the club has been pushed in a corner, and he's got absolutely no defense, and the thing that's killing him more than anything else- he doesn't know what he can or what he cannot do. He's defenseless. Usually his defense is offense, and we've provoked him, yes, but we haven't provoked him outwardly enough for him to resort to violence. And I think this is just killing him; you can see it all over him.
People in the store were- we got mixed reactions from people in the store. A couple of old ladies… came up to pat us on the back sort of and say, “Ah, you should have done it ten years ago. It's a good thing I think you're doing.”
[Raines] These were black ladies.
[McCain] No, these are white ladies.
[McCain] yes, and by the same token, we had some white ladies and white men come up and say to us, “Nasty, dirty niggers, you know you don't belong here at the lunch counter. There's a counter-“ There was, in fact, a counter downstairs in the Woolworth store, a stand-up type counter where they sold hot dogs…
[Raines] But at any rate, there were expressions of support from white people that day?
[McCain] Absolutely right. Absolutely. And I think probably that was certainly one incentive for additional courage on the part of us. And the other thing that helped us psychologically quite a lot was seeing the policeman pace the aisle and not be able to do anything. I think that this probably gave us more strength, more encouragement, than anything else on that particular day, on day one.
[Raines] Unexpected as it was, the well-wishing from the elderly white women was hardly more surprising than the scorn of a middle-aged black dishwasher behind the counter. She said, “That's why we can't get anyplace today, because of people like you, rabble-rousers, troublemakers….this counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are all aware of that. So why don't you go on out and stop making trouble?
He has since seen the woman at, of all places, a reunion commemorating the event in which she played so unsupportive a role.
[McCain] [She said] “Yes, I did say it and I said it because, first of all, I was afraid for what would happen to you as young black boys. Secondly, I was afraid of white would happen to me as an individual who had a job at the Woolworth store. I might have been fired and that's my livelihood….”
It took me along time to really understand that statement… but I know hwy she said it. She said it out of fear more than anything else. I've come to understand that, and my elders say to me that it's maturity that makes me understand why she said that some fifteen years ago.
[Raines] But, moved by neither praise nor scorn, he and others waited for waitresses to return with the manager, a career Woolworth's employee named CL Harris.
[McCain] that was real amusin' as well because by then we had the confidence, my goodness, of a Mack truck. And there was virtually nothing that could move us, there was virtually nothing probably at that point that could really frighten us off. . . . if it's possible to know what it means to have your soul cleansed- I felt pretty clean at that time. I probably felt better on that day that I've ever felt in my life. Seems like a lot of feelings of guilt or what-have-you suddenly left me, and I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak, and not only gained it, but has developed quite a lot of respect for it. Not Franklin McCain only as an individual, but I felt as though the manhood of a number of other black persons had been restored and had gotten some respect from just that one day.