By James Parks
The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a good time to assess that post-racial world we’re supposed to be living in now. So, how’s it working out?
Not very well, according to Franklin McCain. He’s one of the four trailblazing students whose sit-in 50 years ago at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., ignited a nationwide effort that resulted in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Says McCain:
I don’t know where I was when racism disappeared from these United States of ours. This new right and the Tea Partiers have taken the position that anybody who talks about racial discrimination or affirmative action is a whiner or a civil rights pimp. We have to get off the sidelines and attack [that kind of language]….They are taking parts of our gains and using it against us. And it’s ridiculous.
McCain, 67, and three of his fellow students at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College sat down at the whites-only lunch counter in the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960, and refused to leave until they were served. Their bold action inspired protests in more than 50 cities across the South against segregated public facilities. Those protests garnered national media attention and public support, eventually leading to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated desegregation in public accommodations throughout the country.
McCain says reactionaries today have co-opted the principles Martin Luther King and others stood for, especially his commitment to economic justice. Racism and discrimination still are alive and well, he says, even though it’s not as overt as in 1960.
If you take a walk downtown and look into your office towers, you’ll see [African Americans] doing things and in slots where we never were before. But if you go into the boardrooms, you don’t see many of us still.
McCain says the four students had the courage to stage the sit-in because, like most 17-year-olds, they were “kind of crazy” and would “do anything and think about (the consequences) later.” But they also believed in justice and were angry at a system that betrayed them after telling them the “big lie” that if they worked hard and behaved themselves, they would be successful, only to be held down because of their color.
Now a retired chemist and marketing executive, McCain is a member of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors. He says he “can’t fall for the hype anymore that we don’t have the experiences to do these kinds of jobs.”
Based on what has happened to corporate America over the past four or five years, it looks like we have just had a bunch of dumb white men trying to run the country and run business—almost wrecking this country. It sure wasn’t done by black folks. We could have done better.
McCain was honored along with the other members of the Greensboro Four—Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and the late David Richmond—at our annual national AFL-CIO King Day celebration, Jan.14-18.
More than 400 union activists gathered in Greensboro for a five-day event that focused on King’s unfulfilled vision of economic justice. The event featured a town hall meeting on jobs and a major community service project to help the homeless. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker and Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez were among the guest speakers.
When he was assassinated in April 1968, King was in Memphis to support the struggle of the city’s sanitation workers to attain wages that would support themselves and their families and to achieve justice and respect on the job.
As McCain says, King understood it’s not enough to be able to sit at the lunch counter “if you don’t have any money in your pocket.”