He spent most of his life at the doorstep of Charlotte’s power structure. He bumped it. He pushed it and constantly prodded it to improve lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly and handicapped.
If L.C. Coleman wasn’t fighting for sidewalks or parks – even protecting an old post office – on the under-served westside, he was going after heating fuel or ambulance service for those he called “the forgotten people.”
Tuesday, Lewis Cardinal Coleman Jr. died at 92. And Saturday, about 300 people filled C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte to pay respects to a man many regarded as a pioneer in Charlotte’s neighborhood movement.
“He was a legendary figure in this city,” said Ken Koontz, a freelance broadcaster and video producer who first met Coleman in 1970 as a young TV reporter. “He had no fears about taking on any cause, whether it was street improvements on the westside or integrating parks.
“He saw the disparities and inequalities in Charlotte and committed himself to erasing them.”
Coleman was born in Lawrence, S.C., but his family moved to Charlotte’s Washington Heights neighborhood when he was 2. He was poor and lived among the poor, an experience that later led him to advocate for those in need.
After graduating from Second Ward High, then Johnson C. Smith University, Coleman left for New York at 22 and joined the Navy, serving at the end of World War II. After the war, he returned to Charlotte, but left again for New York in 1946. There he chaired the District 65 Labor Union Hardware Local.
When Coleman returned in 1968, he put the lessons he learned from his union work to good use. “He hit the ground running,” Koontz said.
Coleman began attending strategy sessions at westside churches, hearing stories of pockmarked streets and broken sidewalks – of ambulances slow to respond and city leaders who wouldn’t listen.
With Marvin Smith, considered the dean of Charlotte’s grassroots movement, the two built coalitions such as the Westside Community Organization, the Westside Improvement Association, Senior Citizens United and the Northwest Community Action Association to force leaders to listen.
They worked for countywide ambulance service. It took four years to get it.
Coleman led an effort to save a post office on Beatties Ford Road. He organized a hot meals program for westside senior citizens and fought for reduced bus fares. He built support to help people with epilepsy and advocated for sanitation workers and the elderly who couldn’t afford to pay taxes on their houses after revaluations drove up values.
He ran unsuccessfully for city and county elected offices.
In 1972, there were few places for black children to play Little League baseball because most of the fields were in white neighborhoods. So Coleman assembled the Westside Improvement Association Little League team and took the team where it could play – in the white neighborhoods.
It was a difficult transition. At first, the white children would leave when the team arrived, but over time they learned to play with each other.
Coleman fought to integrate parks and for the county to build more parks on the westside. One on McDonald Street is named the L.C. Coleman Park.
”I like to fight for people who have a need for a better quality of life,” he once told The Observer. “Sometimes, people in Charlotte, they don’t treat needy people right. We should all sit together at the table of justice and understanding.”