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Hawkins’ way – and Charlotte’s – helped restaurants integrate

By Mark Washburn

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Last week, a lament was heard over the decline of “The Charlotte Way,” a reference to the engine of progress that built the prosperous uptown we know.

In a forum with the city’s former mayors, Richard Vinroot recalled how with a single conversation, NationsBank leader Hugh McColl committed money to build an uptown transit center. Then Vinroot made another call, to First Union leader Ed Crutchfield, who matched the gesture by committing money for a community center.

It was public-private partnerships, the willingness of civic and business leaders to step in for the betterment of the city, that exemplified “The Charlotte Way.” It meant an unseen hand guided growth through the unifying vision of powerful leaders with everything from commerce to philanthropy at their command.

This week, the city will mark the 50th anniversary of restaurant and hotel desegregation. In Charlotte’s mythology, the move came about because civic leaders recognized they faced a pivotal moment – if the city resisted integration, it could earn a reputation for bigotry that could shame it for a generation.

So they did it “The Charlotte Way.” They worked it out quietly and went on.

What few people know today, though, is that one firebrand preacher outside the corral of power made it happen.

Time of frustration

Reginald Hawkins was a dentist, an ordained minister and a man born to work outside the system.

In 1943, while student council president at Johnson C. Smith University, he picketed to desegregate the Charlotte post office. In dental school at Howard University, he learned about constitutional rights from a teacher named Thurgood Marshall. He became prominent in the Charlotte civil rights movement when he agitated for integration of Charlotte Memorial Hospital after his mother died of what he felt was inadequate care at the black hospital, Good Samaritan.

Hawkins, who died in 2007 at age 83, was behind 19 civil rights lawsuits, health care to schools, and once ran for governor. In the spring of 1963, he was the foremost leader in the movement to desegregate the city’s public accommodations.

Hawkins did not do things “The Charlotte Way.” His son, Reginald Hawkins Abdullah Salim Jr., a Maryland attorney, recalls that Mayor Stan Brookshire and Hawkins were at extremes.

“My father was a gadfly,” he recalls. “He didn’t fit the mold of what the mayor was looking for.”

Brookshire favored gradual and peaceful change, Salim says, but his father was done with waiting.

“After 300 years of adverse slavery and 100 years of repression, it came to a head,” Salim says. “He felt we couldn’t take this anymore.”

On May 20, 1963, Hawkins organized Johnson C. Smith University students, and they marched for integration. “Stay together because any day may be D-Day,” Hawkins told them. “This will be an open, democratic city or there will be a long siege.”

During the 1960s, the South was in a racial revolution. Charlotte lunch counters were desegregated in 1960 after student sit-ins wore down merchants. But so-called tablecloth restaurants remained all-white, as did the city’s major hotels.

Hawkins warned that if racial exclusion didn’t end, the city would face more militant protests.

“All of us have the images in our minds of the fire hoses and police dogs in May 1963 in Birmingham, Ala.,” says Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “Brookshire said that was not going to happen in Charlotte.”

Brookshire’s dilemma

Brookshire, who died in 1990 at age 85 and is memorialized in the expressway that bears his name, was a soft-spoken Southern gentleman so dedicated to integration that a cross was once burned on his lawn. “There are no ethnic groups in heaven,” he told a church group after his election in 1961.

He made a modest fortune selling automation equipment, then rose to civic prominence through the ranks of the United Way and as president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. He wanted racial change and empowered the city’s Community Relations Committee to work toward it.

But in May 1963, Hawkins called his hand with the word “Birmingham.”

Alabama’s largest city was a battlefield, and Gov. George Wallace was in open defiance of federal court rulings over integration. On the day after Hawkins led the march in Charlotte, Wallace gained international attention by proclaiming he would block the door to the University of Alabama to bar black students.

Already that spring, TV had brought the police dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham into America’s living rooms. Brookshire was determined that Charlotte would not follow that course. In an Observer interview 23 years later, he described the mindset he took to civic leaders.

“We had two options: We could accept change, or we could fight change and have violence happen like it had elsewhere.”

Hawkins’ pressure felt

Racial confrontations swept across other North Carolina cities in late May 1963.

• May 19: In Durham, about 400 blacks and 15 whites were arrested during a sit-in at the parking lot of a Howard Johnson restaurant that would not serve African-Americans.

• May 22: In Greensboro, 4,000 marched, the largest demonstration in the city’s history; 900 black students were arrested. They refused to post bail. With the jail overflowing, a former polio hospital had to be used to hold them.

• May 23: Hawkins told the press that mass demonstrations of the same type would soon be launched in Charlotte at hotels, hospitals and theaters that refused blacks. It looked like the city was headed for the headlines.

Later that day, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce met at Brookshire’s urging. Chamber president Ed Burnside had a persuasive message for those still opposing desegregation. In Arkansas, he reminded them, Little Rock had seen no new industry for years after its 1957 racial strife.

A vote was called, and Charlotte Chamber members unanimously passed a resolution calling on “all businesses in this community catering to the general public to be opened immediately to all customers without regard to race, creed or color.” Authoring the resolution were some of the city’s top power brokers: Joe Robinson, senior vice president of Wachovia Bank; J.M. Wasson, vice president of Southern Bell; and C.A. McKnight, the influential editor of the Observer who had editorialized the previous day for peaceful integration.

“Let us hope that the kind of experience that has come in recent days to Raleigh and Greensboro, though far less abrasive than that in Birmingham, is not going to be Charlotte’s lot,” McKnight wrote.

• May 24: In Raleigh, 275 blacks marched. One was arrested on a concealed weapons charge for carrying a paring knife. In Fayetteville, 500 marched. In Greensboro, eight high school students were arrested for trespassing after entering the city’s largest hotels, the O.Henry and King Cotton.

That afternoon, an editorial ran in The Charlotte News: “The opportunity for sensible and right action is before the community now. Let us seize it cheerfully and quickly – and in time.”

• May 27: In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy invited Charlotte theater owners to come discuss integration.

• May 28: In High Point, bricks and rocks were thrown at 500 marching silently against discrimination.

That day, the Charlotte City Council ordered the city codes stricken of any references to segregation. “This is not a move to head off any demonstration,” explained council member Gibson Smith. “We just want to bring our ordinances up with the law of the land.”

At the Charlotte Chamber’s behest, restaurant owners were gathered to talk privately at the City Club.

They feared ruin. If they individually integrated, they said, their white clientele might desert them.

Finally, James “Slug” Claiborne – a young cafeteria owner who later would become one of North Carolina’s most successful restaurateurs – made a bold suggestion: Let’s all do it, and all do it at the same time. Claiborne, who died in 2012 at age 79, proposed turning the practice of sit-ins on its head by holding eat-ins where both races would occupy tables together.

• May 29: At 4 p.m., Brookshire held a news conference. He announced that at lunchtime that day, groups of prominent whites and blacks had dined together. And he said they would do so the following day and the day after that at the top dining rooms in town. First was the Manger Motor Inn, followed by the Queen Charlotte, the Sheraton-Barringer Motor Inn, the Heart of Charlotte and the Downtowner.

“This community is voluntarily facing up to what it thinks is right and in the best interests of continued progress, prosperity and racial harmony,” Brookshire said.

Charlotte’s tablecloth restaurants were integrated. It was at once both a monumental moment and a trifling thing. It went off with a shrug.

“I don’t think anybody even looked at us,” Rufus Perry, the president of Johnson C. Smith University, said afterward. He was one of those to break the color barrier that noon with a plate of shrimp and crab. “Nobody paid any attention.”

• May 30: Martin Luther King came to the Charlotte Coliseum to speak to black high school graduates. He urged them to follow a path of nonviolent protest.

Asked about Charlotte’s latest chapter of desegregation, King said, “There is much other chambers of commerce can learn from your Chamber of Commerce.”

Hanchett, the Levine historian, believes the city could have only dimly imagined the path it had set itself upon. Charlotte became seen as an oasis of reason during the racial strife elsewhere and – despite ugly incidents during desegregation that included the bombing of Hawkins’ home and those of other black leaders – became a magnet for business and opportunity in the evolving New South.

It wouldn’t have happened without something called “The Charlotte Way.”

But it wouldn’t have happened, either, without a man who refused to go along with it.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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