He didn’t ask permission. He wasn’t prompted by any civil rights organizations. His protest grew from late-night philosophical discussions with other college freshmen at North Carolina A & T. Franklin McCain, and a few friends, in the fall of 1959, discussed confronting Woolworth’s lunch counter policy which refused to serve Blacks. They talked about it and decided to put their bodies on the line. On February 1, 1960, they did just that. In the afternoon of that day, they entered the store, bought a few school supplies so they had receipts proving they spent some money. Then they went to the lunch counter, sat down, and asked to be served. The manager refused. A Black dishwasher urged them to go. Some whites voiced racial epithets, a few others offered encouragement. Over the coming days, more and more people came. On the fifth day of the protest, over a thousand young people came to the lunch counter.
In the photograph above, taken on the second day of the protest, February 2, 1960, by Jack Moebes of the Greensboro News & Record, we see from left to right: Joseph McNeill, Franklin McCain, Billy Smith, and Clarence Henderson– friends, protestors, and citizens.
“At what point does a moral man act against injustice?” This is the question McCain asked himself– and the others. It is a question we should all keep close to our own souls.
When I have taught Dr. King’s practice of nonviolent direct action, I often use the example of the lunch counter protests. They provide the clearest window into the heart of that strategy. The lunch counter protests held a kind of purity and clarity that makes Dr. King’s remarkable ideas obvious and understandable. When a Black person sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter, he put himself, his own body, in the place of the injustice. The law said he couldn’t be there. The larger culture said he shouldn’t be there. But because those realities are both immoral, he places himself in the center of the sin. This self-placement forces both law and culture to react. In some cases, the young people who confronted these immoral laws at lunch counters were beaten mercilessly. Most of them did not respond with violence and this was precisely what Dr.King hoped. Nonviolent direct action asks a lot of the protestor. It asks that he or she land in the place of injustice and then respond peacefully regardless of what others do. The hope is that at a certain point, an aggressor beating a peaceful person, will have to draw on his own goodness, asking himself why he is beating a person who does not fight back. This method is revolutionary. It costs. And in many cases, it worked.
Its deepest hope, for Dr. King, was that it would transform not just the law, but the violent, white person as well. This revolutionary strategy requires great courage from a college freshman. But Franklin McCain, and his friends, seemed to have just such courage. Nonviolent direct action forces the oppressor, in this case, the angry whites, to wonder why they are reacting violently to one who willingly accepts their violence. The lunch counter protests were a perfect laboratory for this nonviolent method of action.
What is remarkable here is what so often proves remarkable– that this courageous stand was taken by ordinary people. We often think that a man of the church like Dr. King could surely accept suffering because of his religious faith. But here are college freshmen, acting at the highest level of Dr. King’s ideal. Franklin McCain was not a theology student or a political science student. He would go on to graduate with a science degree. But what he gave us all– all Americans– as a college freshman, stands as an example of moral questioning leading to brave and selfless action.
We all owe great thanks to Franklin McCain and the many others who joined him at lunch counters across the south. We owe them gratitude for their willingness not to ask permission to start a revolution. We owe them gratitude for their willingness to ask and answer the question: “At what point does a moral man act against injustice?”