Fifty years ago today, a three-day eat-in at five Charlotte hotels ended, ushering in the desegregation of public accommodations in the city – a move so groundbreaking at the time that it drew national and worldwide attention. ABC News featured Charlotte in a documentary on civil rights, both Radio Free Europe and Voice of America did special broadcasts, and the Associated Press hailed the “Charlotte move” as “one of the first systematic programs of integration on a large scale in the South.”
In the ensuing weeks that summer, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy would seek out Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire for help in getting other Southern cities to follow Charlotte’s example.
Yet as white business leaders ate lunch with their invited black guests that day at what were until then white-only hotels, trepidation rather than triumph swirled in the air. The headlines in the Charlotte Observer that week proclaimed why:
On the front page on Wednesday, May 29, 1963, the first day of the eat-ins, the dominant story proclaimed: “Judge: Integrate or else.” A federal judge had told the Birmingham, Ala., school board to desegregate or he’d draw up a plan for them.
Another headline noted: “White man, Negroes pelted” in a protest march in downtown High Point.
A large photo in the center showed a familiar Southern image – a crowd of whites kicking a black lunch-counter demonstrator, this time in Jackson, Miss.
Near and far, the push for civil rights was becoming a fight – in the courts and in the streets. In 1963, Charlotte was staring in the face of both.
The city didn’t escape litigation. Court battles forced desegregation of several programs, most famously the public schools in the landmark Swann case. But in May of 1963 a strategy offered by restaurateur Slug Claiborne and cobbled together by Brookshire and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce did keep violence at bay. More importantly, the move started the dismantling of segregation in hotels, theaters and restaurants in the city. That action helped define Charlotte as a progressive New South city, and propelled its reputation for working across racial lines to get things done.
Of course, the back story reveals a less cordial, more fractious meeting of the minds over ending segregation. Julius Chambers, the Charlotte lawyer whose firm successfully argued the Swann school desegregation case, once said Charlotte could teach Rhodesia, South Africa, “something about apartheid.”
Indeed, though blacks and whites largely peacefully coexisted, separate and unequal facilities and services were the reality. Resentment and anger boiled just beneath the surface of niceties. By the 1960s, nonviolent protests were putting cracks in the wall of separation.
Most persistent and passionate among those prodders for change was Reginald Hawkins. I met and interviewed Hawkins for a book project a year or so before his death in 2007, and he had lost little of that fiery spirit. He had few kind words for the Charlotte of the past. He spoke derisively about the “gradualism” toward desegregation that had city leaders dragging their feet on ending segregated facilities.
Hawkins would prove to be instrumental in prodding leaders to open up public accommodations. A march he led a week earlier and a threat of more protests led to the May breakthrough.
Looking back, there were three keys to ending Charlotte’s segregated public facilities. Hawkins and his protests were one. Brookshire working in concert with the Charlotte Chamber was another.
Brookshire, who like every mayor from the early 1960s through the late 1970s was a former president of the chamber, knew the potential harm of such protests to businesses’ bottom line and to the city’s efforts to attract more businesses. He doggedly pushed businesses to desegregate, and helped persuade five hotels with restaurants to take part in the eat-ins.
The other less-talked-about factor in this breakthrough was this newspaper, more specifically its editor, Pete McKnight. Historians have credited the paper with setting the climate for desegregation efforts through its moderate stand starting in the 1950s urging compliance on school desegregation and other issues. That was a contrast to the paper’s earlier history as a proponent of white supremacy and disenfranchisement of blacks.
McKnight, though, had long objected to segregation and decried it in editorials, noting in one while at the Charlotte News in 1950, that “segregation cannot be defended by any intellectually or spiritually honest person.”
McKnight was a member of the Mayor’s Community Relations Committee in the 1960s, and in May of 1963, he drafted the Chamber of Commerce resolution to desegregate the city’s public accommodations. With that resolution, a strategy was sought to make it happen. Claiborne’s eat-in suggestion proved a winning one.
But McKnight captured in an editorial two days later the work left to be done: “The real test of success of this venture lies ahead of us. If this mutually beneficial contact is categorized only as a three-day wonder, if it merely becomes window dressing to distract the community’s attention at a crucial moment, it will have failed. Only the first words have been spoken in a dialogue that must continue.
“We commend all those men who pushed the bugaboo of race behind them in helping this community find its way...”
This was no three-day wonder. Dialogue and cooperation wasn’t always consistent but it happened – and continued. Today, we can learn from their example.
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