When McCain was in school, at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., he and a group of three friends from his dorm would discuss what they thought were important issues. It was 1960, he was 19 years old, and the issue that kept coming up was racism. “The more we talked, the more we felt we were living out the lie,” McCain said recently. “The only thing we’d done is dissected a system, criticized it and our parents … who tried to nurture us. We didn’t like that feeling.” Rather than be “armchair activists,” they decided to do something. They chose a “sit-in” at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. The four men, all black, sat at the whites-only counter and asked to be served. They were refused. They came back the next day, and the next, asking only to be able to buy food. Word got around town, and more and more people came by to watch — or to challenge the uppity blacks who wanted to be treated as actual human beings. Before the sit-in, McCain thought, “If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky, I would come back to my campus … in a pine box.”
There were many threats, but no actual violence. And although their lunch counter sit-in wasn’t an original idea, it succeeded better than many such attempts, in part because of their persistence. That first day was February 1, 1960; Woolworth’s finally capitulated and served lunch at the whites-only counter to four black employees — on July 25. By then, the publicity for the men’s action was enormous — and national. “A new stage in the black freedom struggle had been launched” by the so-called Greensboro Four, according to historian David J. Garrow, “with no prompting from any of the existing civil rights organizations or black adult leadership.” The Greensboro sit-in became a model for thousands of others across the country. McCain, who had been studying chemistry, stayed in Greensboro, working his entire career at a chemical company there. He continued to fight for equality, telling audiences of “the power in one and the few” to change history. “Never ask for permission to start a revolution,” he told college students. “If there is something you want or need to do … just do it.” He died January 9 from pneumonia, at 73.