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A year to remember those who changed us

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

2013 is turning out to be quite the year for remembering. Some events will get more attention than others. For instance, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Stumped? With that law, Congress redressed interning Japanese Americans during World War II.

But the spotlight will be mostly focused on events linked to this country’s struggle with racial injustice. It’s a journey of triumph and tragedy that has given hope to oppressed people around the world.

Among the more well-known events is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963. About 250,000 people participated. A more somber commemoration will come Sept. 15, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed. Their deaths helped change opinion and move the public to tackle the discrimination and mistreatment of blacks nationwide.

But across the nation lesser known individuals were breaking through the walls of discrimination and injustice as well – some here in Charlotte. Consider:

As blacks in Charlotte clamored for equal treatment in 1963, things reached a crescendo on May 20. Activist Reginald Hawkins led hundreds of Johnson C. Smith University students in protest against segregated restaurants and other businesses that served the general public. He warned that Charlotte could “make this an open and democratic city or there is going to be a long siege.”

Mayor Stan Brookshire and other city leaders were determined to maintain peace. Businesses coalesced and heeded a May 23 Charlotte Chamber resolution for them to voluntarily open their doors to African Americans. An Observer editorial said “May 23, 1963, could be the day leading to a major breakthrough in human relations for the Queen City and the Carolinas.” It was. Legal segregation in public businesses ended.

School desegregation had a longer struggle in the city and the state. But again, there are pioneers worth remembering.

Fifty-five years ago this school year was the seminal start. The Supreme Court’s Brown decision ended legal school segregation in 1954 but North Carolina joined other states in stymieing the decree with delaying tactics including voter-passed constitutional amendments. But by the 1957-58 school year, officials acceded and began gradual desegregation. That year four students in Charlotte joined eight others in the state to integrate previously all-white schools.

Dorothy Counts, who integrated Harding High, became the most public as news accounts captured her being besieged by whites who cursed and spit at her. She left days later, never to return.

But the three others – Girvaud Roberts and her brother Gus, who attended Central High and Piedmont Junior High respectively, and Delois Huntley, who attended Alexander Graham Junior High – stayed through the year. Girvaud and Delois were reassigned to all black schools the next year. But Gus Roberts became the first black graduate of Central in 1959.

It would be more than a decade later when famed civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers would argue successfully in the Swann case and Judge James McMillan would order full desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

In this year of remembering landmark changes, these local and other people and events have earned a place on our list.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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