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Charlotte hosts events to mark 50th anniversary of city’s desegregation

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  • From sit-ins to eat-ins

    Charlotte-area leaders, historians, civic groups and residents have organized events to mark the 50th anniversary of desegregation in the city. Here is a list of several that are planned:


    • History Makers Panel Discussion: 1963 Participants and historians share their stories. Organized by Levine Museum of the New South. 2:30 p.m., First United Presbyterian Church, 201 E. Seventh St.


    • Re-enactment of the 1963 march from Johnson C. Smith University to the county courthouse. Scheduled speakers include state Sen. Malcolm Graham, attorney Charles Jones, attorney James Ferguson, Dr. Reginald Hawkins Abdullah Salim Jr. and Mayor Anthony Foxx. 10:30 a.m., Johnson C. Smith University, 100 Beatties Ford Road. Free and open to the public

    • Commemoration of Mecklenburg Declaration: Annual event in uptown Charlotte to include cannons, reading of declaration and a celebration of Mecklenburg County’s 250th anniversary. 11:30 a.m., corner of Trade and Tryon streets. Free and open to the public.

    • The May 20th Society 8th Annual Speaker Series featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson, (“Warmth of Other Suns”), who will connect her research on 20th century African-American history with the Charlotte 1963 history. 7:30 p.m., McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

    May 29-30

    • “From Sit-ins to Eat-ins” event, a two-day effort to encourage Charlotteans to invite someone of a different race to lunch. It is coordinated by Mecklenburg Ministries’ “Friday Friends” program.

    May 30

    • “From Sit-ins to Eat-ins” Community Festival: Participants invited to reflect on history, share what they’ve learned and suggest hopes for future. 5:30-7:30 p.m., Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St.

    Source: City of Charlotte

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 Charlotte’s 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 they’ve learned for the future.

Organizers include: Levine Museum of the New South, Mecklenburg Ministries, The May 20th Society, Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations and Mert’s 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 South’s historian. “Today when racial squabbles sometimes threaten to divide and block Charlotte’s 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 South’s first biracial committees

Accepting change

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 committee’s 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 city’s image come off as a cultured place.”

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