The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TIM FUNK [email protected]­lot­teob­

The push for equal rights in North Carolina started ear­lier than most of the his­tory text­books say.

North Carolina looms large in the his­tory of the Civil Rights Move­ment.

From the sit-ins at a “whites-only” lunch counter in Greens­boro to high school stu­dent Dorothy Counts’ dig­nity in brav­ing racist taunts as she de­seg­re­gated Harding High School in Char­lotte, the state was the scene of many of the move­ment’s most sig­nif­i­cant events and some of its most iconic im­ages.

Less fa­mil­iar episodes in that rich his­tory are also worth re­call­ing.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for ex­am­ple, of­fered a pre­view of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Rocky Mount nine months be­fore fa­mously de­liv­er­ing it as the cul­mi­na­tion of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

And a 1940s fore­run­ner of the 1961 Free­dom Rides landed one of its brave black re­sisters on a chain-gang fol­low­ing a white mob riot in Chapel Hill.

“North Carolina played a huge role” in the Civil Rights Move­ment, said Tim Tyson, the Durham-based au­thor of sev­eral award-win­ning books on race and the South, in­clud­ing “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “The Blood of Em­mett Till.”

A Raleigh reader wanted to know more about the state’s role in the his­toric strug­gle for equal rights for African-Amer­i­cans. So she reached out to Cu­ri­ous NC, a joint ven­ture be­tween The Char­lotte Ob­server, The News & Ob­server and The Her­ald-Sun that in­vites read­ers to sub­mit ques­tions about North Carolina for our re­porters to an­swer.

We combed his­tory books and web­sites, and called on two of the Tar Heel State’s top author­i­ties on civil rights his­tory: Tyson, who’s also a scholar at Duke Univer­sity and UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wil­lie Grif­fin, staff his­to­rian at Char­lotte’s Levine Mu­seum of the New South.

For starters, Grif­fin and Tyson made it clear that the Civil Rights Move­ment — and North Carolina’s role in it — started well be­fore the mid-1950s. That’s been the start­ing point in many school text­books, which cite the Supreme Court’s 1954 rul­ing or­der­ing the de­seg­re­ga­tion of


pub­lic schools and the emer­gence of a young pas­tor named Martin Luther King Jr. dur­ing the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott in 1955-56.

In 1929, Grif­fin said, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple took on the is­sue of po­lice ag­gres­sion to­ward Char­lotte’s black com­mu­nity. And by the 1930s, the fo­cus of the NAACP’s “en­er­getic, di­verse and ever-chang­ing” lo­cal branches in the state also in­cluded vot­ing rights for African-Amer­i­cans, Tyson said.

That push for power at the polls picked up steam in North Carolina in the 1940s, es­pe­cially af­ter World War II. In 1946, Tyson said, black vet­er­ans came home and or­ga­nized statewide voter reg­is­tra­tion drives.

By the early 1950s, with many African-Amer­i­cans vot­ing in the state’s big­ger cities, Win­ston-Salem and Durham elected their first black city coun­cil mem­bers, Tyson said.

Black North Carolini­ans also pushed for eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The Vet­er­ans Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion spear-headed marches and protests “de­mand­ing ac­cess to civil ser­vice jobs and li­censes to drive taxis,” said Grif­fin. “We of­ten think of in­te­gra­tion and vot­ing rights as the two pil­lars of the civil rights move­ment. But eco­nomics was re­ally the foun­da­tion of it. That was what slav­ery was about.”

As early as 1933, about 2,500 African-Amer­i­cans — many of them teach­ers — gath­ered at Raleigh’s Memo­rial Au­di­to­rium for an NAACP-spon­sored event de­signed to raise is­sues of in­equal­ity. As de­scribed in Sarah Caro­line Thue­sen’s book, “Greater Than Equal: African Amer­i­can Strug­gles for Schools and Cit­i­zen­ship in North Carolina, 19191965,” the meet­ing drew at­ten­tion to the fact that black teach­ers were paid less than white teach­ers with the same ex­pe­ri­ence and train­ing.

“The meet­ing ... marked an im­por­tant new phase in black ac­tivism in the state,” Thue­sen wrote in a 2013 blog post. But it wasn’t un­til 1944 that state of­fi­cials, wor­ried about court cases brought by black teach­ers in neigh­bor­ing Vir­ginia, “equal­ized” teacher salaries in North Carolina, Thue­sen re­ported.

Start­ing in the late 1940s, state NAACP Pres­i­dent Kelly Alexan­der Sr. of Char­lotte be­gan a decades-long as­sault on seg­re­ga­tion. “The N.C. NAACP, un­der Kelly Alexan­der, filed more school in­te­gra­tion law­suits in the late 1940s and early 1950s — one af­ter an­other — than any other state (NAACP) con­fer­ence in the South,” said Tyson.

Over time, “Mr. NAACP,” as some called Alexan­der, also built the North Carolina NAACP into “a force in the state and the largest NAACP (con­fer­ence) in the na­tion,” said the New York Times in its 1985 obit­u­ary of Alexan­der. An­other North Carolinian, Ella Baker, who grew up in Hal­i­fax County, ex­panded the na­tional ranks of the NACCP by 900 per­cent over a three-year pe­riod (1943-46) as na­tional di­rec­tor of the civil rights group’s lo­cal branches.

Black jour­nal­ists in North Carolina used their ed­i­to­rial voices and re­port­ing skills to

cham­pion equal rights.

Tyson men­tioned Durham’s Louis Austin, ed­i­tor of the Carolina Times. In his weekly col­umns dur­ing World War II, Austin pressed for an end to dis­crim­i­na­tion in the mil­i­tary and the de­fense in­dus­tries as well as bet­ter wages for do­mes­tic work­ers and the hir­ing of “Ne­gro po­lice­men where Ne­gros are in­volved.”

Grif­fin said the De­pres­sion-era work of Char­lotte na­tive Trez­zvant Anderson — rov­ing news­pa­per cor­re­spon­dent, la­bor ac­tivist and rail­way postal clerk — “in­formed the (civil rights) move­ment. Martin Luther King read him.”

Among the in­jus­tices spot­lighted by the cru­sad­ing Anderson, Grif­fin said, was the big­otry prac­ticed by Paul Yount, Char­lotte’s post­mas­ter and pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Post­mas­ters As­so­ci­a­tion. Yount used a re­quire­ment that job seek­ers pro­vide a photo ID to iden­tify and rule out the em­ploy­ment of black ap­pli­cants. Anderson’s ex­posé, Grif­fin said, helped con­vince Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt to sign Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der 8587 in 1940, thereby end­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion photo re­quire­ments for civil ser­vice em­ploy­ment.


North Carolina fig­ured in the civil rights story in other ways:

In 1947, mem­bers of

● the Congress of Racial Equal­ity launched the “Jour­ney of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” a plan to test the Supreme Court’s rul­ing against seg­re­ga­tion in in­ter­state travel. An in­ter­ra­cial group boarded buses bound for the South. In Chapel Hill, five mem­bers of the team were dragged off the bus and beaten by a white mob. They were then ar­rested by po­lice for vi­o­lat­ing North Carolina’s “Jim Crow” laws. One of the ar­rested black re­sisters, Ba­yard Rustin, wrote about his 30 days on the chain-gang. “The pub­lic­ity (from his ar­ti­cle),” Tyson said, “helped put an end to chain-gangs in North Carolina.” And the CORE group’s ac­tion later in- spired the more fa­mous Free­dom Rid­ers to take a sim­i­lar jour­ney in 1961.

In 1957, 15-year-old

Dorothy Counts and three other black stu­dents were ad­mit­ted to four pre­vi­ously seg­re­gated pub­lic schools in Char­lotte. This an­gered many lo­cal whites, with one woman, Tyson said, urg­ing girls in the crowd sur­round­ing Counts to “Spit on her! Spit on her!” Pho­to­graphs of Counts’ courage in the face of racial hos­til­ity ran on news­pa­per front pages around the world. “It be­came a sym­bol of de­seg­re­ga­tion,” Tyson said of the pic­tures. Ef­forts to de­seg­re­gate Char­lot­teMeck­len­burg schools even­tu­ally led to the Supreme Court’s land­mark Swann de­ci­sion in 1971, which held that bus­ing could be used to keep schools racially bal­anced.

The case, brought by the NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund, was pre­sented by Char­lotte’s Julius Cham­bers, whose car, home and law of­fice were bombed by white su­prem­a­cists.

In 1960, four black

stu­dents from North Carolina A&T bought some small items at a Wool­worth’s store in Greens­boro and then sat down at its “whites-only” lunch counter. Their re­quests to or­der were ig­nored and the man­ager called the po­lice. The stu­dents were not ar­rested, but the photo of the “Greens­boro Four” in­spired sit-ins across the South. This was also the dawn of the tele­vi­sion age, Grif­fin said, and im­ages of the sit-ins went into Amer­i­cans’ liv­ing rooms.

Hop­ing to tap into the en­ergy of the stu­dents who par­tic­i­pated in the sit-ins, Baker, who had spurred grass­roots ac­tivism with the NAACP, called a con­fer­ence at Shaw Univer­sity, a his­toric black col­lege in Raleigh. Then and there, the Stu­dent Non-Vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, or SNCC, was born. It would be in the fore­front of the strug­gle for civil rights in the 1960s.

The sit-ins — im­mor­tal­ized at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton with a replica of the Greens­boro lunch counter — “turned the Civil Rights Move­ment into a mass move­ment,” Tyson said. “It turned it into a South­wide and na­tional move­ment, one rooted in non­vi­o­lence and driven by the en­ergy of youth.”

© Don Sturkey, 1957, North Carolina Col­lec­tion, Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Li­brary.

Don Sturkey pho­tographed Dorothy Counts for The Char­lotte Ob­server on the day she in­te­grated Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Schools in 1957. She faced in­sults along the way from an­gry white stu­dents and adults.

© Don Sturkey, 1964, North Carolina Col­lec­tion, Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Li­brary.

Ku Klux Klan mem­bers are shown on a Sal­is­bury street in 1964.

News & Ob­server file photo

A sit-in at the lunch counter at Wool­worths in Raleigh in 1960.

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