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The long history of racist hate mail in Charlotte

Excerpt from an anonymous, undated letter sent to Fred Douglas Alexander, who in 1965 became the first black elected Charlotte City Council member since Reconstruction.
At every turn toward racial equality, there were those who wanted progress to stop. And this pendulum still swings in the Queen City.

The anonymous note, sent with a 6-cent stamp, was hand-written in red ink.

It’s just 77 words but nearly every line delivers a racial insult:

“You black S.O.B. troublemaking bastard,” it begins.

“Why don’t you try to do something constructive instead of stirring up trouble — even for the other n-----s.”

“Somebody’s going to stick a foot up your black ass before it’s over. Just wait and see.”

“If I was a councilman, I’d take a bath every time I had to sit in the same room with you.”

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The University of North Carolina Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives

This letter was sent in 1968 to Charlotte’s first black City Council member, Frederick “Fred” Douglas Alexander.

Alexander had been elected in 1965. Less than six months after he took office, his home was bombed, along with those of three other prominent black civic leaders in Charlotte.

Since then, black leaders from Charlotte have ascended to every level of government: serving in Congress and as head of a federal agency, as well as winning city, county and state offices and working as leaders of local police forces, schools and political parties. Many of Charlotte’s top CEOs, non-profit executives, and professional sports figures, too, are successful black leaders.

But at nearly every turn toward racial equality in Charlotte’s history, there were those who desperately wanted progress to stop.

And this pendulum still swings in the Queen City.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

In August 2019, a two-page letter spewing hate and racism was sent to 12 elected black leaders in Charlotte, and it was also addressed to the police department and fire department — both agencies currently led by black officials. Far from an isolated incident, this letter echoes sentiments found in hate mail sent to black leaders in Charlotte in decades past.

In August and September, the Charlotte Observer talked with past and present civil rights leaders and black elected officials in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. They all say that racist hate mail recently sent to local black leaders closely resembles the most hateful rhetoric from the civil rights era — and suggests Charlotte is again at a pivotal point in the struggle toward better race relations.

“People think that we have come a long way. We have come a long way — but not that far,” said Dr. Willie Griffin, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

“History is very, very complicated ... The amount of racism, while it’s peaking now, is not at the level that it was in the ‘50s or the ‘60s,” Griffin said.

“But the sentiments are the same. The patterns are the same.”

‘Resistance to change’

Last month, an anonymous letter nearly two-pages long was mailed to 12 black leaders in Mecklenburg County. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake read it aloud at a public meeting. It said “Black Democrats should be tarred and feathered and run out of town” and sent “screaming to the concentration camps.”

The author also threatened “someone” may “blow up” an MLK statue and said: “I would love it if they would blow you up.”

More than 4,000 people responded by signing the “CLT 2019 Unity Letter,” which ran as an ad across three full pages in the Charlotte Observer on Sept. 8, as well as in the Charlotte Post and La Noticia.

While it’s unclear what, if anything, set off the unknown author, the letter specifically says “Leave our Confederate memorial statues alone” and defends President Donald Trump. It was sent just a couple weeks after the Charlotte City Council passed a resolution condemning a “Send Her Back” chant at a North Carolina Trump rally and citing four specific times the president made “racist and xenophobic social media tweets and comments.”

Police say they found the author of a separate racist message, sent to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston in August, and that the man admitted sending it.

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Then, in early September, another letter surfaced — again anonymous and this time addressed only to Leake — that said black people should “Go back to Africa.” Leake challenged the writer to come forward, saying “Don’t stay a coward.”

Leake says she’ll continue speaking out and reading aloud racist hate mail at public meetings. The public, she says, should be aware of the racism that persists in 2019.

Now, as it was the 1960s and ‘70s, “there’s change and then there’s resistance to change,” says James “Fergie” Ferguson, a longtime civil rights attorney, who helped start the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.

“It’s not new,” Ferguson said. “It’s been sort of a historical fact and pattern.”

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The University of North Carolina Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives

The recent racist messages bear striking resemblance to the hate mail received by black leaders of Charlotte’s past.

Both include claims that racial discrimination is exaggerated or conjured up, insults to black leaders’ intelligence or integrity and a litany of other stereotyping put-downs.

For instance, one letter sent in 1970 to Ferguson’s law partner — Charlotte civil rights attorney Julius Chambers — addressed Chambers with “Hey Flabberlips.” The latest letter, sent to Leake, says “You should be ashamed of yourself ... With your big lips, which by the way black lips are not only big and obnoxious, they smell.”

Another contemptuous phrase — “Go back to Africa” — is seen over and over in both the 2019 letters and the old hate mail.

No longer ‘underground’

Harvey Gantt, who was Charlotte’s first black mayor, elected in 1983, remembers getting hate mail in the 1960s, when he became the first black student to attend Clemson University. He doesn’t recall any racist letters addressed to him while serving as council member or mayor. But, he believes his staff members may have filtered that mail out, attempting to shield him from the vitriol.

Plus, Gantt says, racism presented itself differently in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Charlotte.

Harvey Gantt_Joel Lassiter of Lassiter Photography
Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte Joel Lassiter Gantt Huberman Architects

“Racism was something that crept underground,” he said.

Lately, the former mayor says, it seems a new wave of overt racism and white nationalism has emboldened some.

“It used to be you kept (those thoughts or words) in the basement of your house and you didn’t express them nearly as much.

“The environment we’re in right now has substantially changed that. Because they see there is not going to be as much shame visited on folks who express racism.”

The latest acts of racism in Charlotte may at least partially be a response to recent achievements of black leaders, says Ferguson, who still practices civil rights law.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ferguson said, “It was a rare thing to see an African-American in positions of leadership in the community among official organizations ... One of the reasons we did the work was so we could change all of that.”

“So I look at this as part of the progress we’re making,” he said.

“If you go back and look at periods of progress, you almost always find there’s been some backlash. You always have the people who feel threatened by racial progress. When people are in fear, they unfortunately react in irrational and sometimes violent ways.”

Take, for instance, the letters sent to Alexander five decades ago.

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The University of North Carolina Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives

‘Go home to Africa’

In one unsigned letter sent to Alexander, dated July 22, 1969, a person writes:

“Go home to Africa ... God will not stand for integration.”

“No Negroes allowed.”

“Martin Luther King ... was for integration and where did it get him? In his grave.”

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The University of North Carolina Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives

Another, also unsigned, was even more ominous:

“Something is going to happen, it’s not good ... Get out of our white schools.”

“God made Africa for the black race, America for the white race ... Negroes must get out of our schools.”

These letters were both sent within a few years after the 1965 Charlotte fire bombings that targeted the homes of Alexander, Julius Chambers, civil rights activist Reginald Hawkins, and Fred Alexander’s brother Kelly, who at the time was president of the N.C. NAACP.

Now these pieces of hate mail, along with much of Fred Alexander’s working papers, are kept inside hundreds of large folders inside the J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Mingled in with the racist letters are postcards and well-wishes from Charlotte bank executives, homemakers and even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Alexander, like the rest of the men targeted, was well known for having spent most of his adult life fighting for racial justice in Charlotte. He led voter registration drives, pushed to integrate the city’s police department and became the first black member of the Chamber of Commerce.

On council (and later as a state senator) Alexander’s influence grew.

He helped black families who were displaced from Brooklyn during urban renewal. He persuaded a majority of his white counterparts on the council to remove a fence separating the historically black Pinewood Cemetery from the white-only Elmwood Cemetery. And he led efforts to equally distribute low-income public housing across Charlotte.

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The Charlotte Observer

Back then, in Ferguson’s and Chambers’ law offices, a stack of hate mail was fairly common.

“It happened but it was not something that interfered with or hampered our work,” Ferguson says. “We viewed it as part of the territory.”

Now decades later, Chambers’ working papers illustrate the kind of hate and racism he faced as he worked to desegregate Charlotte schools and the wildly popular high school football Shrine Bowl.

‘Digging your own graves’

Excerpt from a letter sent to Chambers on March 27, 1970, with a postmark from Monroe, N.C.:

“You people are digging your own graves.”

“We will have a Civil War rather than bus our children to other schools.”

“It’s an insult to go to the same schools with blacks.”

“Think it over, we are not kidding. Just as sure as those people were not kidding about John and Bob Kennedy.”

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The University of North Carolina Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives

Another letter, sent in 1974, threatened violence:

“Julius Chambers, you Negroes go home to Africa ...”

“Your time is almost run out ...”

“People are fed up ...”

“It won’t be too long until your lives will be over unless you leave this country.”

“To put it plain, we hate Negroes.”

None of the hate mail would stop Chambers, though.

In 1965 alone, the Charlotte Observer reported two years ago, “Chambers was involved in more than 50 desegregation suits.” In all, he took eight major civil rights cases to the Supreme Court. He argued and won all eight. The school desegregation case he started in Charlotte would give rise to mandated busing around the U.S.

Every time he and his law partner would receive a racist letter, “it underscored the importance of continuing the work we were doing,” Ferguson said.

As for the recent racist letters in Charlotte, Ferguson says that kind of hate has “never been effective in stopping the work that has gone on.”

“Over the years, I’ve lived through so much of this stuff,” he said.

“But if violence could stop progress, then progress would have been stopped a long time ago.”

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Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.
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