It was 50 years ago this week that Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination in schools, workplaces and public accommodations.
And while lawmakers get credit for passing the law, historians say it was countless acts of defiance by average people, including Charlotteans, that forced the government’s hand.
An event marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is being held Tuesday at ImaginOn’s Wells Fargo Playhouse, and those small acts of bravery will be among the topics lauded by historians, attorneys and community leaders.
The Carolinas were very much a part of the fight for civil rights, including lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro and the “jail, no bail” strategy that had civil rights activists in Rock Hill choosing to stay in jail over fines and bail.
“If there are surprises at the (ImaginOn) event, it will be the extent to which the Charlotte area was wrapped up in efforts to get the Civil Rights Act passed,” said historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South.
“It’s taught in school that Congress or President (John F.) Kennedy decided there would be a Civil Rights Act, but it really was a lot of grass-roots activity, and a lot of that flowed through Charlotte.”
Hanchett will be among the speakers at the commemoration, which could be likened to a night of storytelling aimed at reminding Charlotteans how much the world has changed in 50 years.
The event is being presented by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations committee, the Community Building Initiative and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Library staffer Janice Blakeney came up with the idea for the event, which will feature Theodore Shaw, the newly appointed director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, as keynote speaker.
It was a time when everyone seemed to have a role to play, said Blakeney, who was 10 at the time the law was enacted. She said she was inspired by stories told to her by average people in the community.
“I was talking to a lady about how she was the first black salesperson at the Belk store in uptown. She’s still alive and she’s still here, and I couldn’t help but think its the kind of thing children need to connect to,” said Blakeney.
“Something as simple as going into a store to try on clothing wasn’t permitted (for African-Americans). Things like that don’t even register with children today or make sense to them.”
An example of those who helped make a little history during the Civil Rights movement is Gwendolyn High, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations committee.
In 1964, she was part of the first group of black teens sent to desegregate a white high school in south Florida.
High said many of the battles waged and won during the Civil Rights struggle were fought by the young.
“What the Civil Rights Act did was open up all those doors that were not open to us before,” said High. “One thing we have to do is remind young people of that so they can have an appreciation of where we are now. It hasn’t always been this way.”