- Gary Younge
On February 1, 1960 Franklin McCain and three teenage friends from the historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, went to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro and took a seat.
They were not part of an organisation and had never been politically active before. “I don't think the [established civil rights groups] really understood what the driving force was for this movement,” McCain says. “We had four kids here trying to address an unequal system. Just four kids who were somewhat introspective.” The night before they had stayed up until the small hours goading each other into action. They didn't warn anyone because they thought adults would try to talk them out of it. Their attempts, the next day, to get a few people to join them failed. “We just thought it was useless waiting for them to catch up. We didn't have the time to convince people ... People needed to believe in it enough to die, they had to walk on the picket lines until their shoes wore out. We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done. And we had nothing to lose.”
McCain describes the feeling of sitting at the counter — confronting the oppression of ages as a cop brandished a stick he could not bring himself to use — as one of zen-like serenity. “I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration. I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. Nothing else has even come close. Not the birth of my first son nor my marriage. I had no tensions and no concerns. If there is a heaven, I got there for a few minutes.” And so, from a moment of tranquillity began a turbulent decade of student-led activism, both locally and globally, that produced some of the transformative movements of the last century. The 1960s did not invent student radicalism. But it did witness a spike in a centuries-long tradition that has ebbed and flowed from 19th century Russia to Soweto and is surging once again across Europe.