When Franklin McCain died last week, I remembered how often his acts and his words inspired me.
McCain was one of the four North Carolina A&T State University students who first sat down in 1960 at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro and quietly asked to be served, sparking a wave of sit-ins across the country.
I remembered his talk in 1998 at an event marking the 38th anniversary of those sit-ins. I expected a fiery oration, one that was totally critical of our country’s record on civil rights. But what I heard, at the beginning, was more like a Fourth of July speech.
“Our country,” he began, “it is, on balance, the best country in the world.”
He continued, making the following points to his mostly African-American audience on the campus of A&T in Greensboro:
- “Not only can you now sit down and eat in any restaurant, you can own it.”
- Blacks have pulled themselves up into the middle class – and established a power base in politics and the economy.
- Henry Frye is on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
- Blacks are anchorpersons on our TV stations.
- A&T is much better funded than it was 38 years ago (still not adequately so, he emphasized, when the years of under-funding are taken into account).
“What is happening?” I thought to myself. Is Franklin McCain ready to declare victory and celebrate the successful conclusion of the struggle for equality?
No. McCain was not doing anything of the sort.
Many things, McCain said, were keeping him very concerned.
- The rise of racist groups: Aryan Nation. KKK. And “right wing jerks who parade as ministers of the gospel.” All these are a part of the mood of the country.
- The resurgence of the politics of meanness.
- At the same time as the Congress was considering renaming Washington’s airport after Ronald Reagan, McCain said that he was still angry with the former president because he undercut the progress of minorities.
- McCain was just as mad at those people who were active in the 1960 – but today “sit back and do nothing.”
- “I am upset,” he said, “with those who say that ‘race doesn’t matter.’ Race doesn’t matter – if you are white. If you look like me, race matters.”
- “God help those who say, ‘I made it on my own.’”
Now McCain was giving the fiery speech that I had expected.
“We have allowed our adversaries to define the issues of the day. He who controls the language and the rules will win the debate. ‘Affirmative action’ now means ‘reverse discrimination.’ ‘Neighborhood schools’ means ‘keep those black kids close to their own homes and out of our schools.’ ‘Inner city’ is a code word for ‘us.’
“‘Welfare queen’ is just a term to paint a black face on welfare – when it is really the young white mother with two children who is the typical welfare recipient.
“What is welfare, anyway?” he asked. Federal highways, FHA loans, college loans, and deductions for depreciation, sugar subsidies, and grazing on government lands. If you take those, aren’t you on welfare?
“I don’t mind my tax dollars going to feed hungry kids, but I do mind cows grazing on our lands for 50 cents an acre.”
McCain gave the tough and emotional speech that I expected – and I had to listen to it and reflect on it. As a legend and hero in the civil rights movement, he deserved that attention.
As someone who loved his country and gave it credit for being the best in the world, he commanded respect when he told us we had not come nearly far enough.
For years to come, his words will command respect and his example will inspire us.