Fifty years ago Charlotteans came together to do something remarkable.
Across the South, unrest rocked cities. Police jailed more than 700 civil rights protesters in Greensboro, more than 1,000 in Durham. In Birmingham, police chief Bull Connor called out police dogs and turned fire hoses on young marchers, and the resulting horrific news photos flashed around the world.
What did the protesters want? It now seems so ordinary. They marched to end segregation that barred African-Americans from mingling with whites in restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and other “public accommodations.”
In Charlotte Dr. Reginald Hawkins organized yet another march. Ever since the Supreme Court called for the end of segregation in its famous Brown decision of 1954, the African-American dentist had been leading protests. This time he and Johnson C. Smith University students headed to the County Courthouse on East Trade Street. An obelisk there commemorates events in May of 1775 when Mecklenburg demanded freedom from England – a year before the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence.
“The time for gradualism is over,” Hawkins thundered, referring to the 1960 sit-ins that had opened lunch counters, but not Charlotte’s fancy “white tablecloth” eateries. “We want freedom and we want it now.”
That’s when Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire acted. Segregation’s end was coming, he said. “On the moral side, the answer lies in the golden rule,” he told the New York Tribune a few days later, “On the economic phase, the community’s pocketbook is placed in jeopardy, as Birmingham and other cities have learned from experience.”
Brookshire talked with Charlotte Chamber business leaders, with the city’s new Community Relations office headed by Presbyterian leader Rev. John Cunningham of Davidson College, and with African-Americans including Johnson C. Smith University official Moses Belton.
At the suggestion of young restaurant owner James “Slug” Claiborne, white and black leaders went two-by-two to eat at restaurants on May 29-31, 1963.
That simple action broke the back of resistance. By mid-summer Charlotte’s public accommodations were open to all – a year before the 1964 Civil Rights Act required it.
A lasting legacy
The change made headlines in the New York Times on May 30, and in other national media over the summer. Mayor Brookshire’s papers at UNC Charlotte’s Special Collections archive contain numerous requests from cities far and wide asking how Charlotte did it.
Jack Claiborne, then a reporter for the Observer covering civil rights issues in the nation’s capital, thinks that Charlotte’s example emboldened President John F. Kennedy and Congress, just beginning to debate a civil rights bill.
“What happened in Charlotte gave reassurance that Washington could require integration – without sending federal troops.”
Indeed that bill became the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1963, Birmingham was vying with Atlanta to become the premier city of the New South. Charlotte was less than two-thirds the size of the Alabama powerhouse.
In the aftermath of 1963, places have switched. Birmingham is one-third the size of Charlotte. Undoubtedly there are many reasons for that. But one is the remarkable way that this community came together to make civil rights history.
Tom Hanchett (thanchett@museum ofthenewsouth.org) is a historian with the Levine Museum of the New South.
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