An important but little celebrated element of the civil rights movement will gather in uptown this weekend as the Charlotte Convention Center hosts 11,500 women who fought many of the grass-roots battles that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Alpha Kappa Alpha – the nation’s oldest sorority for college-educated, mostly African-American women – is more a service organization than a civil rights group, but its accomplishments include launching the American Council for Human Rights in the 1940s and creating the first congressional lobby to champion African-American causes in the 1930s.
Carolyn House Stewart, the sorority’s international president, says many of the convention’s attendees could be counted as “unsung heroes” of the civil rights movement. Individually, they were average people, she says. Collectively, they were an army.
“You might be talking about the first black woman to run a branch of the YWCA, or the first black to play tennis in a state championship, the first to attend an all-white school, or the first to sing on local TV,” she said.
“Some were at the forefront of everything going on, but hundreds of women were behind the scenes in communities. All of them helped change the landscape. All helped humanity.”
It is coincidental that the biennial convention falls just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but the sorority hopes heightened awareness will increase public attendance at a town hall meeting Sunday.
That meeting, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at the Charlotte Convention Center, will include a panel of ministers, civil rights attorneys, elected officials and educators.
Among the panelists is the Rev. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who was present at a major turning point in the civil rights movement: the Sept. 15, 1963, white supremacist bombing that killed four of her friends at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Panel topics will include voter rights, Stand Your Ground Laws and allegations that the country is reverting to segregation in areas such as education and health care.
“It will be a spirited discussion, and the goal is to spark dialogue on issues that disproportionately affect the powerless and disenfranchised,” said sorority member Leyser Hayes, chair of the committee organizing the town hall meeting.
“And we’d like to hope ideas would emerge for a plan of action in the community.”
The sorority hopes to leave Charlotte “a changed city” after the convention.
Founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the organization sought to provide a support network for women at a time when the nation was both segregated and male-dominated.
It has since become one of the world’s most active service organizations, with projects that have built schools in South Africa, bolstered African-American businesses on Wall Street and preserved African-American historic sites, including the purchase of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home for the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change.
Membership recently topped 265,000 women in 42 states and nearly 10 countries, including doctors, attorneys, professors and at least three current members of Congress. The sorority also has its share of celebrity members, including actresses Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Wanda Sykes, Star Jones and Loretta Devine. There are more than 3,000 members in North Carolina, 856 of them from the Charlotte area.
The 11,500 attendees will be unmissable on uptown streets over the next week because of a tradition of wearing pink and green to public affairs.
Members from nearly all 986 chapters are expected for the convention, which runs through Friday and will also include a series of community service projects. The largest will have 1,000 volunteers packing 100,000 meals Saturday at the Convention Center as part of a Stop Hunger Now program to fight global hunger. Community volunteers are invited.
An example of members who were involved in the civil rights struggle is Hansonia Caldwell-Harriford, a sorority archivist who recently retired as a professor of music at California State University Dominguez Hills, with academic specialties in music, African-American music history, piano, choral conducting and humanities.
She was raised in the Baltimore area but now lives in Los Angeles. She recalls being the first black teen in that city to enter a Fred Astaire dance school.
However, Caldwell-Harriford says a more dramatic “first” came during a college road trip in 1964, when she joined a group of white college friends at a whites-only lunch counter outside Baltimore. She was the only black in the group of young women.
“We had been told (as blacks) to avoid the country, but somehow this group found itself in the country that day and stopped for lunch,” she recalled.
“Once we sat down, people in the restaurant started banging their silverware on the counter and chanting a racial slur. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. We got up and ran. If we hadn’t, I think there would have been violence.”
Caldwell-Harriford jokes now that she broke the color barrier in that restaurant – for about five minutes.
She is celebrating her 51st year with the sorority, which she says teaches women to achieve great things by “standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.”
Her hope is that Charlotteans will catch that spirit by showing up at the town hall meeting.
“I’d love for people to bring their children, particularly those who may have just graduated from high school,” Caldwell-Harriford said.
“They need to see that there is success in the (black) community, there is caring in the community, and there are people from all over the country who are concerned about the issues people are facing here in North Carolina.”