Issue Date: February 10, 2014
February is Black History Month. To celebrate, the American Chemical Society has partnered with the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers to produce the video “Five Black Chemists Who Changed the World.” The five are Patricia Bath, the inventor of the Laserphaco Probe to treat cataracts; George Washington Carver, the agricultural chemist born into slavery and who specialized in the cultivation and use of peanuts; Betty Harris, the inventor of a spot test to identify explosives in the field; Mae C. Jemison, the first woman-of-color astronaut; and Percy Julian, the inventor of a synthesis that vastly reduced the cost of cortisone.
Outside chemistry, Black History Month is often marked with commemorations of the civil rights movement. As an Asian immigrant, I am indebted to all those who fought for civil rights long before I stepped on U.S. soil. They paved the way for people like me—nonwhite, foreign-born, and poor in material wealth but rich in education, drive, and resilience—to achieve our aspirations on the basis of equal opportunity for all.
Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are often the centerpieces of commemorations of the civil rights movement in the U.S., and deservedly so. We chemists should add Franklin E. McCain Sr., who died last month, to our pantheon of civil rights icons. McCain studied chemistry at what is now North Carolina A&T State University and worked as a chemist at Celanese Corp. In addition, as C&EN reporter Sophia L. Cai notes in the obituary on page 36 and an extended version online, McCain dedicated his life to social justice, beginning in 1960, when he was an undergraduate student.
Like Parks, McCain sat where he didn’t belong in segregated, pre-civil-rights America. On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up a seat in the white section of a public bus in Montgomery, Ala. On Feb. 1, 1960, McCain refused to budge from the “whites only” lunch counter of an F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. He was joined by three other young students: Jibreel Khazan (Ezell Blair Jr.), who studied sociology; Joseph A. McNeil, who studied engineering physics; and David L. Richmond, who studied business administration. Together they are known as the original Greensboro Four.
When the original Greensboro Four asked for service, they got none. A different four came back the next day, as shown in the picture above. Within a few days, Cai writes, about 1,000 people had joined the peaceful protest. On July 25, 1960, Woolworth integrated all of its stores.
Without McCain and countless others, the civil rights movement in the U.S. could not have reached the critical mass necessary to shift the country toward desegregation. As a nation, we may never reach real equal opportunity for all, but at least we know and agree it is a worthy aspiration.
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