Black History Month: Charlotte in 1964

It was the year Congress passed a sweeping act banning racial discrimination in hiring, and the 24th Amendment was ratified to abolish poll taxes for federal elections.

But looking back 50 years – before Charlotte elected three black mayors and voted for a black president – many former activists recall 1964 as the year hope began to fade for a peaceful transition to equal rights.

Casualties had begun to mount in 1963, culminating in the November assassination of President John F. Kennedy, viewed by many blacks as a key advocate.

Freddie Sinclair Clinton was a senior at Johnson C. Smith in 1964, and he says students were facing a choice: Stay the course of nonviolence led by Martin Luther King Jr., or embrace the confrontational style of Malcolm X, who visited the campus in 1963.

Clinton found inspiration in both men, but he admits Malcolm X’s words were power to young blacks, who were less inclined to turn the other cheek.

“Malcolm X looked across the auditorium (at Johnson C. Smith) and said: ‘Look at you sitting out there, black in the face, red inside, and you got a yellow streak down your back. And you call yourself a man,’ ” says Clinton, 76, who retired as an educator from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1999.

“He was telling us we’re scared, cowards, and that we needed to stand up and be a man. It was really inspiring to hear a man say things like that: To not be afraid.”

Clinton says his big moment came as an underclassman at Johnson C. Smith, when he became what many believe to be the first black to integrate the Imperial and Carolina theaters on Tryon Street in uptown. Briefly, that is.

To hear Clinton retell the story, he and a fellow light-skinned black student got into the Imperial with a plan to be waiting in the lobby when a dozen other Johnson C. Smith students showed up seeking tickets.

It worked only in part, with the manager of the Imperial closing the ticket booth when the other students showed up. Clinton says they tried again at the nearby Carolina Theatre. He got in before the rest and took a seat but quickly learned that police were onto the plan.

“Sheriff’s officers were going down the aisle, shining flashlights side to side, and I heard the woman next to me say they were looking for some children from the colored school that got into the theater,” he recalled.

Once again, the other students were turned away, so Clinton slipped quietly out after the police disappeared.

“It was said that white people didn’t want to go to movies with blacks, because they smelled, and I wanted to prove that wrong,” he says. “It was me, sitting there with a whole row of white girls. Some have told me I should have stood up and told the officer: ‘Here I am.’ But my family didn’t have the money to bail me out of jail.”

Fifty years later, the father of three believes there is still room for improvement in race relations, but he remains optimistic.

‘I almost went insane’

Grace Wyche was 39 in 1964, married to a Charlotte attorney and doing her share for the movement by showing up at “whites only” restaurants seeking to be seated.

She says the stakes were more serious than counter seats and segregated water fountains. Her youngest daughter, Gwendolyn, was about 4 when their white family doctor sent her to Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center) for treatment of tumors in her spine.

However, the hospital wouldn’t admit her into the children’s ward because she was black, remembers Wyche, who turns 90 next month. Instead, the family was told to take the girl back home for the weekend, until a room could be cleared in another ward, Wyche says. The hospital loaned them a bed to use.

“I was devastated. I almost went insane. I was bitter about everything and everybody,” she says.

“My daughter, my only daughter, got to where she couldn’t walk, so we had to keep her flat on her back for two days, except when we lifted her up to take her to the bathroom. I suffered all weekend looking at my child in terrible pain.”

The following Monday, Gwendolyn was admitted in an adult ward at the hospital, and she survives to this day. But it’s clear Wyche has not forgiven those involved.

She says she continued to believe in taking a nonviolent approach to winning civil rights, never arguing when she and her husband, the late Thomas Henry Wyche, were turned away from restaurants.

“It hurt when places told us ‘no’ but you just turned around and left and hoped that it would one day get better,” she says. “And it did.”

Charlotte: A national model

Charlotte never had the riots associated with the civil rights movement in other large southern towns.

The closest it came was pockets of violence connected to busing of students that began in 1969-70. Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South says that’s because community leaders cooperated and found ways to avoid the heated showdowns that happened elsewhere.

“The unrest seen in places like Birmingham in ’63 and ’64 was over things already settled in Charlotte,” Hanchett said.

“Here, we had become something of a national model. If you look back, you can find New York Times stories that basically said: Here’s what the nation is thinking of doing. Here’s a city in the South that didn’t go up in flames when it happened.”

He credits this to the fact that Charlotte didn’t have “an entrenched elite” with something to lose, like other large Southern cities. “Charlotte had consistently welcomed people with new energy, new points of view and new ideas.”

An example of Charlotte’s approach could be seen in a civil rights march held in March 14, 1964, with up to 500 Johnson C. Smith and Davidson College students marching from the Johnson C. Smith campus to the main post office in Charlotte.

A white Davidson College student, Joe Howell, was among the organizers and he says their mission was not to protest anything in Charlotte. Instead, they were drawing attention to a student petition asking government leaders to pass a federal Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination in hiring.

Still, Howell says he got a call from Davidson College President Grier Martin the Monday before the march, and was told that there was “considerable pressure” to call off the event.

“Then he told me: ‘Of course, I can’t force you to stop’ and I noticed a twinkle in his eye, which let me know how he really felt,” said Howell, who wrote of the moment in the book “Civil Rights Journey: The Story of a White Southerner Coming of Age During the Civil Rights Revolution.”

Grier Martin later became Howell’s father in law.

Their conversation that day ended with a request that Howell call Henry Belk, the mayor of Charlotte. “He (Belk) practically ordered me to stop, but I stood my ground,” Howell said. “He told me it was because the march would go through a ‘redneck’ part of town and he was was worried about violence.”

That didn’t happen. For better or worse, it poured rain the day of the march and not a single person stood along the route to hassle the marchers, who gathered later that night for a dance at Johnson C. Smith, Howell said.

“It was before ‘black power’ had arisen, before Vietnam brought all that pathos and sadness, before Martin Luther King had been killed, before the movement changed more toward conflict and violence,” Howell said.

“We still had a feeling of hope.”

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