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MLK’s pioneering generation passing, along with stories

For the second time in five months, mourners packed the sanctuary of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Friday to pay final tribute to a pioneer of the civil rights movement.

First, Julius Chambers. Now, Franklin McCain. Each braved threats of violence to open the door of equality a little wider.

As the nation prepares to honor Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, many are also remembering his contemporaries, men and women in the vanguard of the fight.

But theirs is a generation quietly slipping away.

“Much as Tom Brokaw chronicled ‘the greatest generation’ that fought World War II, now is the time to honor the generation that fought the civil rights struggle,” says historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South.

The front lines of the battle stretched across the South and across the Carolinas: a lunch counter in Greensboro, a high school in Charlotte, a rural community in Clarendon County, S.C.

Those battles took place more than a half-century ago.

It was in 1960 that McCain and three other students from N.C. A&T sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter and launched a sit-in movement that spread to Charlotte and throughout the South.

Five years later, Chambers’ car was bombed days after he filed a lawsuit that would become the basis of a landmark Supreme Court ruling that established busing as a remedy for school segregation.

“It is a changing of the guard, clearly,” says state Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., whose late father faced death threats as president of the state NAACP. “That’s the group that put their lives on the line.”

Graying survivors of the struggle try to keep the memories alive.

Charles Jones, a 76-year-old Charlotte attorney and one-time Freedom Rider who was jailed with King in Albany, Ga., in 1961, shares his experiences whenever he can.

“I must keep the dream alive,” he says.

Some worry about the future.

Dorothy Counts Scoggins walked through a gantlet of jeers in 1957 to integrate Charlotte’s Harding High.

“Sometimes I wonder who’s going to continue this,” says Scoggins, 71. “We don’t have the people like Julius and Frank and Martin Luther King to continue to pursue the movement. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But who’s going to pick up the torch and carry it?”

Civil rights trailblazers

The Carolinas were home to many people who played important roles in the civil rights movement. Some made headlines. Others fought quietly.

Ella Baker of Halifax County was “the most important of all of North Carolina’s leaders,” says historian Timothy Tyson of Duke University, who has written books about the civil rights era in North Carolina.

Baker, who died in 1986, was once the highest ranking woman in the NAACP. In 1960, shortly after the Greensboro sit-in, she met with other activists in Raleigh and helped start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which went on to mount voter registration drives throughout the South.

On the first anniversary of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in, nine students from Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College were arrested after sitting at the lunch counter of McCrory’s dime store in downtown Rock Hill. Instead of posting bail, they chose jail time, setting a new standard for protesters and drawing young activists such as Charlotte’s Charles Jones to join them behind bars.

In the mid-1960s, Asheville native Floyd McKissick, who’d been the first black student admitted to the University of North Carolina law school, was chosen as the national head of the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE. McKissick died in 1991.

In addition to McCain and Chambers, Charlotte has lost veterans of the struggle. Among them:

• B.B. DeLaine, originally from Clarendon County, died in 2012. He saw his family’s home burned after his father, the Rev. J.A. DeLaine, sued local school schools in 1950. That suit became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional.

• The Rev. Sidney Freeman also died in 2012. A white Unitarian pastor, he joined Charles Jones and other Charlotte protesters at downtown marches against segregation in the early 1960s.

• James Ross was a Johnson C. Smith University graduate who had just left the Air Force when he came back to Charlotte in 1965 and formed an organization that fought job discrimination. He, too, died in 2012.

• Jim Polk helped desegregate Charlotte restaurants in the early 1960s, then joined Ross in fighting workplace discrimination. He died in 2010.

• Reginald Hawkins, a Charlotte dentist and outspoken activist, died in 2007.

When Hawkins ran for governor in 1968, King was scheduled to campaign with him. Shortly before he was to arrive in April, Hawkins got a telegram saying King had to postpone the visit.

“You are probably aware of the situation in Memphis,” it read, referencing King’s plan to lead a march of the city’s striking sanitation workers.

Two days later, King was assassinated there.

New generation

In 1958, two years before Edith Strickland graduated from Johnson C. Smith, she joined activists in Berea, Ky., studying the nonviolence championed by Mohandas Gandhi and King. She returned to Charlotte, marched in protests and married B.C. DeLaine.

Like Scoggins, she’s dismayed by a younger generation that doesn’t seem to share the passion of hers.

“It makes me so sad,” she says, “because I’m looking for someone else who is strong enough to prepare themselves to fight. I’m looking forward to seeing … them rise and lead.”

The 21st century has brought plenty of challenges: persistent poverty and stubborn racial gaps in education and incarceration rates among them. But 50 years after King’s March on Washington, there’s a black president as well as black mayors, CEOs and a host of black achievers. Some observers said that has made many young people complacent.

“It was my generation that got the first black president elected,” says LaConteau Williams, a 24-year-old senior at Smith. “It doesn’t appear that there’s a lot to fight for anymore. … That’s kind of how my generation views it.”

But she said she hopes her peers help others get the opportunities her generation has had.

Joseph Graham, 41, is a graduate student at UNC Charlotte. He believes many students have little understanding or appreciation of what happened decades ago.

But, he says, “it would be unfair to paint that as the entire picture. Even though that may be where the majority of people are, at the same time you have a very small group of people who are interested, who are forward thinkers (and) fired up about solutions.”

The Rev. William Barber said he believes there are a lot of causes to fight for, and a lot of people willing to fight.

The president of the state NAACP, Barber began the “Moral Monday” protests over policies of the Republican-led General Assembly. He’s challenging the state’s new voter law in court and threatening to sue Gov. Pat McCrory for not speeding up a special election in the 12th Congressional District, until recently represented by U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, both of which he believes particularly affect minority voters.

“We have two battles before us now,” he says, “the battle to hold on to the victories we won and to push forward for the things that are yet to be won in North Carolina and in America.”

Barber says students will be at the forefront of a planned Feb. 8 protest in Raleigh that he says will be the “biggest march since Selma.” Later they’ll help lead a state voter registration campaign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

He says he talked to Chambers and McCain since starting the “Moral Monday” protests.

“They’ve all encouraged me and others to keep on fighting,” he says, “because what they saw was a walking away from many of the victories that they had won.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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