Sit-in pioneer: ‘Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution’

by Jordan Green

Franklin McCain, one of the four NC A&T students who launched the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, spoke at the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on Monday. (photo by Quentin L. Richardson)

The stage-managed media arrangements, city snowclearing efforts and appearances by political dignitaries surrounding the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro created an air of expectancy and civic pride. Inside the Empire Room across the street, at the sit-in breakfast before the ribbon cutting, a general sense of wellbeing pervaded.

Franklin McCain, one of the three surviving members of the NC A&T quartet that launched a political revolution across the South in 1960, cut through the good feeling with a sense of urgency that would weave a motif through the rest of the day’s events.

“A&T students, you are keepers of the dream and keepers of the nightmare,” he announced. “I’m not concerned with your dreams. Dreams put you to sleep. I’m concerned about your nightmares. Nightmares keep you awake. Nightmares make you plan and resort to action. I want all of you to have nightmares.”

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the NC NAACP and honored recipient of the program’s medal of human rights, had earlier hammered out the theme in a sermon.

“It’s an ironic metaphor that we’re here today in the Empire Room because the A&T Four decided to take on the empire with love and truth and justice. They loved justice more than their very own lives. They took on the empire of racism, legal segregation that was unconstitutional, unpatriotic…. But let us not be mistaken: Today, the empire continues to strike back. Schools are re-segregating faster than they have since the 1970s. Predatory lenders and racial steering are robbing are communities of valuable housing stock. Fiftytwo percent of those without health insurance are minorities or African Americans. The empire continues to strike back. Double-digit unemployment in African-American communities. We were in a crisis before CNN reported there was a crisis. Banks getting a bailout while the rest of us are getting left out. Right here in North Carolina, we’re putting more money in prisons than we do all five of our historically black colleges and universities.”

It was a day of vindication for Skip Alston and Earl Jones, the cofounders of the museum, who refused to relinquish control of the project, and insisted that it tell an uncompromising story about the risks the student activists took, the shameful violence and repression that often came in response. It was a valedictory day for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the nation’s foremost civil rights leader and onetime presidential candidate, who shared the media spotlight with Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in President Obama’s Justice Department. It was a day to celebrate the orchestra of many small players who worked together to dismantle segregation, and to take stock of the challenges ahead.

James White, who came to Greensboro from Louisiana to attend A&T, participated in the sit-ins on the second day.

“I was talking to myself this morning about this,” he said.

“When the guys did sit in, I thought about what if. What if they hadn’t? We black kids were expendable. I can’t imagine what gave them that kind of moxie. Thank God, I happened to come along at that particular time.”

His friend and classmate, Lewis Brandon, was by his side Monday morning. A quiet, self-effacing participant in the sitins, Brandon has taken special care to document the contemporary movement for social change, photographing events hosted by organizations such as the Beloved Community Center and the Pulpit Forum.

Himself a recipient of Alston and Jones’ Sit-In Movement Award, Brandon has taken care to bring attention to many of the less celebrated players.

Brandon likes to emphasize that two white Bennett College students, showed up on the third day and continued through the end of the semester and were among 45 people arrested on April 21. The two students, Jean Neff and Mary Bender, were there on Feb. 6, 1960.

“We assembled at Brown Hall at A&T, Bennett and A&T students,” Brandon recalled. We went into Woolworth’s and Kress. Some of us went downstairs at the lunch counter at Kress and others at Woolworth’s. There were a lot of counter-demonstrators. It got quiet. When I looked up, the [A&T] football players were standing at the top of the steps. The manager at that time closed the store. Those of us that were at Kress got up and went to Woolworth’s. I have a video of the crowd when we got to Woolworth’s. There’s a scene when someone pushed me in the back. There was a report that a bomb threat had been called in, and we all left. We marched back to A&T. When we marched past the King Cotton Hotel, people threw debris and liquids at us.”

Throughout this and past sit-in anniversaries, a searching question has haunted forums and commemorations — how succeeding generations might respond to the example set by Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan and the late David Richmond, who died of lung cancer in 1990. Richmond’s son, Chip, seemed to struggle with that sense of inadequacy as he sat next to his father’s three friends.

“This moment is bittersweet because I really wanted my father to be here,” he said. “This is a special moment. I often feel like a substitute teacher, trying to stand in and do a good job.”

During the invocation in front of the new museum, the Rev. Jackson gave thanks for NC A&T administrators who refused to buckle under pressure from the state to cut the college’s funding and to professors such as John Kilimanjaro, the future publisher of the Carolina Peacemaker, who supported their students going to jail but urged them to take their books with them. He gave thanks for Lewis Brandon and the Bennett College students.

It was clear that McCain and the other veterans of the struggle want this museum to inspire engaged citizenship more than to enshrine them as heroes for the ages. Gov. Beverly Perdue credited the A&T Four with breaking down barriers of race that led to subsequent breakthroughs for women and allowed her to become the first female governor of North Carolina. US Sen. Kay Hagan and Mayor Bill Knight paid homage.

But McCain was not thinking of the past when he rose to speak.

“Don’t wait for the masses when you want change,” he said. “Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution, because people don’t like change. Witness the spirit of ’75 and ’76. Who would have thought a ragtag band of farmers would have kicked the British out?” Just before the ribbon-cutting, Earl Jones invoked the names of a succession of black liberation leaders and friends of the struggle — Crispus Attucks, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, WEB duBois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X — before declaring, “Let us open up these doors.”

As if heeding McCain’s injunction, the Revs. Cardes Brown, Gregory Headon and Nelson Johnson of the Pulpit Forum preempted the ribbon-cutting by chanting, “We cannot wait” and “The fight goes on,” as they waved fliers outlining the case of Officer AJ Blake, an Afro-Latino officer who contends that he has been a target of prejudice within the Greensboro Police Department.

“There are deep, enduring issues,” Johnson explained to a television reporter. “Making a monument to the sit-ins cannot be a camouflage for the injustices that exist today. The police department is corrupt and riddled, and we just want actions to take place today.”

TOP TO BOTTOM: The civil rights museum at dawn on Feb. 1, the Rev. Jesse Jackson with a young friend, Jibreel Khazan (right) greets Hal Sieber; Jim Kee and Alma Adams in the museum. (photos by Quentin L. Richardson)