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Historic Site for Sit-ins Becomes Civil Rights Center and Museum

Seventeen-year-old civil rights trailblazer Franklin McCain had weighed the possibility of being brutalized and incarcerated by burly Greensboro, N.C., cops on Feb. 1, 1960.

But he definitely hadn’t anticipated the piercing, slightly unsettling gaze of a diminutive, older white woman with blue-tinged hair.

Appearing to be in her late 80s, she stared unrelentingly at McCain and three other African American college students who were defiantly staging a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter inside a Woolworth’s retail store in downtown Greensboro.

“I saw that lady watching us for a full five to six minutes,” recalls McCain, who’s now 67 and was joined that historic day by Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair and David Richmond, the other North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College students forever immortalized as the “Greensboro Four.” When the woman began to approach McCain, he steeled himself for a confrontation.

“She said, ‘I’m disappointed in you—disappointed because it took you so long to do this!’ ” McCain remembers. “After that, I’ve always told myself, ‘Franklin, don’t you ever stereotype anyone because of what color they are, how old they are, or where they come from,’ ” says McCain, a retired chemical industry executive who resides in Charlotte, N.C.

Agents for change

The Greensboro Four were denied lunch-counter service that day. However, their principled stand sparked protests that prompted the Woolworth’s in Greensboro to integrate its lunch counter on July 25, 1960, 50 years ago, and ultimately hastening the demise of Jim Crow segregation laws nationwide.

Half a century later, the lunch counter McCain crashed is prominently displayed in the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The $23 million complex is inside the building that formerly housed the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro.

Along with a Woolworth’s lunch-counter area restored to look as it did in 1960, the museum has scores of exhibits devoted to the struggle for human and civil rights. One re-creates the Greensboro Rail Depot, a major southern rail center where blacks and whites used separate restrooms and water fountains.

Another exhibit, “Jail, No Bail!” features jail bars framing the mug shots of 1,200 civil rights protesters arrested throughout the South.

Saving a landmark

A Joint Center for the Study of Human Rights has also been proposed for the museum complex, which could easily be a parking lot today were it not for the vigilance of Greensboro politician and businessman Melvin Alston.

Learning of a bank’s plan to raze the Woolworth’s building after its parent company closed the facility in 1993, Alston and Greensboro City Councilman Earl Jones sprang into action. “We told them it would be a cold day in hell before we would allow them to tear that building down,” says Alston, 52.

He and Jones were given three months to raise $700,000 to prevent a civil rights icon from meeting a wrecking ball. The deadline for producing the cash was Feb. 1, 1994.

Relying on fundraisers, philanthropists and a bank loan, the men came up with the money. But saving the Woolworth’s building was only the first step toward eventually creating the center.

“We want it to be an active center of teaching people how to come together, how to work together as blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles,” says Alston, a Guilford County commissioner.

A North Carolina treasure

Not everyone in Greensboro was eager to erect a permanent link to the city’s painful past, he notes. However, an early supporter was Democratic state Representative Alma Adams, who began working in 1994 to author legislation that has generated roughly $3.5 million in state funding for the project.

Greensboro’s legacy of nonviolent resistance dates back to the 1930s, according to Adams. She says during that decade, students from Bennett College—a historically black women’s school in the city—led a downtown march protesting the portrayals of African Americans in movies.

“The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is not only good for Guilford County, but it’s good for our state and our nation,” says Adams, 62. “We consider it a treasure here in North Carolina.”

It has even more significance to the Greensboro Four, who lost one of their members 20 years ago when David Richmond died in Greensboro at age 49.

“Dave was a good guy, a stand-up guy who had a heart of gold and was always giving,” says Joseph McNeil, 67, a retired stockbroker and Air Force Reserve two-star general.

Although none of the Greensboro Four pursued civil right careers, “we were absolutely convinced that our cause was right and just and appropriate,” says McNeil, 67, a father of five and grandfather of nine. “If our generation didn’t do it, some other generation would have to.”

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.