"Don't Wait for the Masses"

This evening, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by one of the Greensboro 4, Franklin McCain.  For those who are not familiar with Mr. McCain, the Greensboro 4, or their contribution to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, perhaps the name “Woolworth’s” will ring a bell.  Mr. McCain was one of the four students who participated in the nonviolent sit-ins at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, NC, a protest against the system that denied African American citizens full rights, equality, and respect, and one that inspired similar acts of resistance across the state and the country.  Mr. McCain offered some general remarks about his experiences and about life in general, all of which were inspirational and encouraging, especially to the UNC Asheville students in the audience.  

Mr. McCain told us that when he was growing up, his family told him to follow four main rules in order to ensure a successful life:
1. Respect and admire the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
2. Follow the 10 Commandments and go to Sunday school
3.  Get not good, but superior, grades
4.  Respect your elders and do things for others without expecting to be acknowledged or praised for doing so

He also mentioned that he did not have any “tales of woe” from his childhood; his family lived comfortably and the only question about college was where he would enroll.  However, as he grew older, he told us, he felt rather betrayed by what his family had taught him: following those four rules did not help him attain success, dignity, or respect, particularly in regards to his place in American society.  He admitted that he often became depressed by this, and sometimes questioned whether or not his existence was even worthwhile.  However, he realized that ending his life over this was the “coward’s way out,” and was, moreover, perhaps one of the most inconsiderate things he could do to the people who loved and supported him. 

In college, Mr. McCain met other similar-minded students and was able to safely express his feelings of frustration and anger with the system.  After a period, however, he realized that simply sitting around and talking about and criticizing these problems; rather ironically, given the nature of his later protests, he describes his college-aged self as an “on chair activist.”  He and his friends decided to address the problems they identified through their sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, taking action that was as peaceful as it was provocative. 

Mr. McCain did not spend much time discussing the particulars of the Woolworth’s events, but he did give us some advice for affecting change where we see problems.  First, he told us, “don’t wait for the masses,” to make a change; do something yourself.  He describes himself, even now, as a person who is “hard to keep control of,” so it is natural that he would express such a sentiment in regards to overcoming social and political issues.  He also advised us never to apply stereotypes to people whom we do not know.  At Woolworth’s, for example, he and his fellows met a small woman who was very much the stereotypical “white southern woman, complete with large shoulder bag that held everything but the kitchen sink.”  However, when she spoke to the Greensboro 4, she thanked them for their efforts and admitted that she wished they had taken action a decade ago.  Since this time, Mr. McCain told us, this “little old woman” follows him everywhere to remind him that before he passes judgment he must get to know an individual (because “you just don’t know that person” and “it’s not fair” to hold them to stereotypes).  Another piece of advice that he offered the audience was that if we see something that needs to be fixed, “don’t ever wait for permission to start a revolution.”  Although he received threats from strangers and even members of his school community, McCain continued his nonviolent protests; if he had asked permission of these people to do so, he would never have been able to begin.  Finally, he told us, “Be ashamed to die before you make an indelible impression on your community and the region where you live.”  He took us on a mental journey through a cemetery where everyone has two things in common: the date of birth and the date of death.  What will set us apart is how we live the dash between those dates.  He warned against a “skinny, narrow” line and advises a wide, long, fat line representing a life of integrity. 

“I wish I could tell you everything,” he told us about halfway through his lecture, and I wish he could have.  When he ended by saying “I’m finished,” I was glad that we at least had the question and answer session during which to learn more from him.  Mr. McCain was an engaging speaker with a fantastic sense of humor (for example, he described himself as “older and 5% wiser”), a wealth of good advice, and, not surprisingly, a very humble demeanor.  UNC Asheville is lucky to have hosted such an inspiring individual, and I know that the rest of the audience feels the same way.   

For more information about Mr.McCain and the Greensboro 4, please follow the link below:


  • CWR says:
    April 2, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    It is great to hear that you enjoyed the event. It was the pleasure of the Student Chapter of the ACLU to host Dr. McCain. We hope to bring more inspiring and insightful lectures to the UNC-A campus in the coming years.

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