(CNN) -- Five decades ago, Franklin McCain and three fellow African-American college students made history just by sitting down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and waiting.
And waiting -- for service that never came that day at the whites-only counter.
The four came back the next day. And the next.
The "Greensboro Four," as they came to be known, drew national attention with their peaceful demonstration in the winter of 1960.
Within three days of their first attempt to simply sit and eat, more than 300 students, including whites, were taking part in what was being called "a sit-in" in Greensboro.
Nearly six months later, with similar sit-ins happening at dozens of whites-only lunch counters in Southern cities, the counter where it all started served its first black customers.
McCain died Thursday after a brief illness, according to his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University. He died in a hospital a few miles from the old Woolworth's location -- now the nonprofit International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened 50 years to the day McCain and his colleagues began their sit-in on February 1, 1960.
The museum posted on its site a tribute to McCain and the other three students for their "courageous act (that) marked a turning point in the struggle for equality that continues to this day."
McCain, 72, graduated from North Carolina A&T in 1964, and worked for a chemical company, the Celanese Corp., in Charlotte for almost 35 years, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
He was a member of the North Carolina university system's board of governors and was active in civil rights throughout his life, according to North Carolina A&T.
"His contributions to this university, the city of Greensboro and the nation as a civil rights leader are without measure. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of Aggies and friends throughout the world," A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin said in a statement posted on the university's website.
In 2010, McCain told CNN of his concern when an elderly white woman approached the lunch counter that day.
"I was thinking to myself, she must have knitting needles and scissors in that handbag of hers and they're about to go right through me," said McCain, a bespectacled freshman at the time.
Instead of pulling a knitting needle on the young men, the woman placed her hand on McCain's shoulder and smiled warmly.
"She says, 'Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago,'" McCain said.
"That was the greatest source of inspiration to me, probably for all my life, primarily because it came from a very unexpected person," he said. "You picture 1960 in the South in a little old white lady's space and you are acting out of place, and she compliments you."
Another member of the four, Joseph McNeil, also spoke with CNN on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in and said the planned action grew out of lifetimes of personal experiences with segregation.
"Unless we decided to do something about it and took some action, our children would have had to also challenge racial segregation," said McNeil, a retired major general in the Air Force Reserves. "Woolworth's was a national chain, and what we fundamentally wanted to do was to bring attention to the negative, and the evil of segregation."
In addition to McCain and McNeil, the Greensboro Four were Jibreel Khazan -- then known as Ezell A. Blair Jr. -- and David Richmond. Richmond died in 1990 at age 49, according to the Greensboro News & Record.
Speaking of McCain as news of his death spread, Khazan told the New & Record, "Frank would say we didn't want to set the world on fire, we just wanted to sit down and eat like everybody else. We wanted to be included in the round table of humanity."
CNN's Thom Patterson and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.