The year was 1963, turbulent and provocative, as Birmingham, Ala., Police Chief Bull Connor turned dogs on children crusading for change.
In the North Carolina town of Rosman, angry whites burned a summer camp that invited black children. To keep blacks from swimming in a Lexington pool, segregationists dumped in motor oil. Everywhere, it seemed, violence broke out in hundreds of protests that ended in thousands of arrests.
Not in Charlotte.
Instead, during the last three days of May 1963, white businessmen were quietly urged by Mayor Stan Brookshire and Chamber of Commerce officials to eat a meal with black leaders and professionals at city restaurants. It was a determined effort to break the back of resistance and integrate public facilities and avoid trouble.
On Sunday, a community discussion is set to kick off a week-long series of events to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of those remarkable few days that helped propel Charlottes image as a progressive city.
Called From Sit-ins to Eat-ins, the events will include a re-enactment of a march that led to the eat-ins, a two-day effort when residents of different races will be urged to go to have lunch together and a community festival where participants will discuss what theyve learned for the future.
Organizers include: Levine Museum of the New South, Mecklenburg Ministries, The May 20th Society, Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations and Merts Heart & Soul restaurant.
Historian Tom Hanchett said current Charlotte can learn from 1963 Charlotte.
When Charlotte came together across racial lines in May 1963, the city made a giant stride forward, said Hanchett, the Museum of the New Souths historian. Today when racial squabbles sometimes threaten to divide and block Charlottes ability to make decisions, our history can give hope.
Friendly Relations Committee
Those eat-ins drew international attention and praise from Martin Luther King Jr.
They still draw pride from Charlotte lawyer Charles Jones, a veteran of Southern jails during his work for equal rights.
The eat-ins were three years in the making.
They are the product of a biracial committee that would spare the city significant violence and plant a taproot for how the city deals with change a half-century later.
The Friendly Relations Committee (now the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee) sprang up in early 1960 as black students from Johnson C. Smith University conducted daily sit-ins at uptown lunch counters until they were served.
Weeks after the sit-ins began on Feb. 9 of that year, Jones, a seminary student, and three other JCSU student leaders met with Mayor James Smith to discuss finding a resolution.
We wanted the mayor to know that we were not trying to embarrass the city, but that we also were not prepared any longer to accept second-class citizenship, Jones said.
The students knew the mayor had to do something. The sit-ins and subsequent boycott of downtown five-and-dime and department stores were growing by the day, crippling business.
Smith, at the suggestion of the student leaders, established a committee of white and black members initially to find a peaceful solution to the sit-ins and boycott.
It was one of the Souths first biracial committees
The sit-ins ended that summer in 1960, after Smith and the committee urged the stores to open lunch counters.
But most other public facilities remained segregated.
A year later, Smith was out of office, replaced by Brookshire, a former Chamber president who broadened the committees scope. He renamed it the Community Relations Committee and appointed blacks and whites from all corners of Charlotte.
Its function, Brookshire said in a 1986 interview, was not to put out fires of racial strife but to prevent them. We had two options: We could accept change, or we could fight change and have violence happen like it did elsewhere.
After Reginald Hawkins, a black Charlotte dentist, organized a march from JCSU to the county courthouse and called for an end to segregation, Brookshire began his lobbying.
A cultured place
As race riots tore up other Southern cities, pairs of whites and blacks went to lunch together, forcing hotels, motels and theaters to desegregate, too a year before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
By then, Charles Jones was a first-year law student at Howard University.
One night, his mother called with news of the march and eat-ins.
I was so proud of my city, Jones said. We had made another move forward. The mayor, the police chief, the City Council, the Chamber had made the wisest decision to let this citys image come off as a cultured place.