Politics & Government

50 years ago: Bombs ignited night of terror

Charlotte’s night of terror began right outside Kelly Alexander Jr.’s bedroom, with a flash of light and thundering boom that rocked the walls and sent shards of glass flying over his bed.

The front porch explosion ripped off the front doors and knocked open kitchen cabinets. Somehow 17-year-old Alexander made his way across the glass and joined his family in safety.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on that rainy night, 50 years ago Sunday, three more bombs exploded across west Charlotte in a span of 15 minutes. All came at the homes of well-known civil rights activists.

Kelly Alexander Sr. was state president of the NAACP.

His brother Fred, who lived next door, had just become the first African American elected to the city council since the 1890s.

Reginald Hawkins was an outspoken crusader for civil rights.

Julius Chambers was a promising young lawyer who’d just filed one suit to integrate an iconic football game and another to speed public school desegregation.

The dynamite bombs blasted into headlines across the country in November, 1965. They also shattered the complacency of a city that prided itself on racial tolerance while largely avoiding the violence rampant in other parts of the South.

“So now Charlotte has joined the ranks of Birmingham, Jacksonville, Atlanta and other Southern cities where the bomb has become a fact of life,” editorialized the Statesville Record.

Many people were afraid it might.

“We were in the middle of the struggle and you didn’t know which way things were going to play out,” says Kelly Alexander Jr., now 67 and a state legislator.

But in ways big and small, the bombings would showcase the city’s resiliency as white and black Charlotteans came together in displays of unity.

Despite a statewide manhunt, no one was ever arrested.

The case, code-named CHARBOM by the FBI, has never been closed.

‘The power of hate’

You can still see the thin cracks on the front stoop of the house across from West Charlotte High School that Alexander still shares with his mother, Margaret, 91. They’re reminders of the blast outside the bedroom where he slept that stormy November night.

Other scars were less visible. Theodora Alexander, Fred Alexander’s daughter, says her mother never again had a good night’s sleep.

Kelly Alexander Sr. told reporters at the time he thought “the whole house was coming down.”

“This was done specifically to kill us,” he said. “This time we were lucky. The next time, who knows? Somebody may get killed.”

Suspicion quickly turned to the Ku Klux Klan, a hate group known for its cross burnings and bombings that was still active in the area.

FBI agents pressed their informants. According to FBI reports, one told them Klan members had met in Charlotte just hours before the bombing. But he said they talked not about bombings but plans for an upcoming Christmas party.

Even though Charlotte had avoided the violence of other cities, race was still a constant fault line that for years widened over school segregation.

Eight years before the bombings, in 1957, a 15-year-old girl named Dorothy Counts braved a gauntlet of taunts and became the first black student at Harding High School. Reginald Hawkins escorted her home that first day.

In 1961, Hawkins organized a boycott to protest the school board decision to covert Harding High into an all-black school renamed Irwin Avenue junior high while moving the white students to an all-white school.

Though his boycott won some concessions, tensions over the slow pace of integration continued to escalate. In 1964 CMS had 88 segregated schools, 57 white and 31 black. By 1965, only 2,126 of the district’s 23,000 black students attended school with white students.

In January 1965, Chambers had filed a suit known as Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. It would go on to become a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1971 that upheld busing for desegregation.

A few days after he filed the suit, Chambers’ car was bombed while he spoke inside a New Bern church. (After inspecting the damage, someone asked what he was going to do. “We’re going to go back inside and finish the meeting,” he replied.)

Chambers was undeterred. That year he was involved in more than 50 desegregation lawsuits. One came on Nov. 11, 1965, less than two weeks before the bombings in Charlotte.

Chambers sued over the Shrine Bowl, the annual football game for high school all-stars at Memorial Stadium. The trigger: the omission of black running back Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, who’d set a single-season record of 19 touchdowns at Myers Park High School, a record that still stands. The Alexander brothers and Hawkins were also involved in Chambers’ suit.

On Friday Nov. 19, state Judge Braxton Craven allowed the Shrine game to be played but gave the Shriners less than four months to come up with a new player-selection policy.

A lot of people were outraged.

“A very raw nerve has been touched – football,” journalist Harry Golden would write. “Some of these bastards would even let you marry their sister if you promise not to touch – football.”

Davison Douglas, dean of the William & Mary law school and author of a book on the desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, calls the Shrine Bowl suit “probably the precipitating event that led to the bombings.”

But Douglas, a 1974 Myers Park graduate, believes the bombing also was prompted by resistance to efforts to desegregate schools, restaurants, hospitals and other public accommodations.

Not lost on the community was the fact that the bombings came on the third anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

“Everywhere the memory of his passing rekindled the pain,” the Observer said in an editorial. “In Charlotte we felt the pain too. More acutely … because we learned the power of hate to endure.”

Community comes together

As striking as were the bombings, so was the response.

A day later more than 150 volunteer workers were at the bombed homes repairing brick walls and damaged roofs. Many were from C.D. Spangler’s construction company.

“We are trying to make amends,” Spangler told a reporter at the time. “Even though it doesn’t completely heal the wound, maybe it will go a long way toward helping.”

Spangler was particularly close to Fred Alexander, who managed his company’s Double Oaks apartments. “We wanted him back in his house,” recalls Spangler, who would go on to lead the University of North Carolina system. “People were shocked. It’s not the kind of thing you’d believe about your hometown.”

Mayor Stan Brookshire started an “Anti-Terrorism Fund” for the victims. The ministerial association issued a statement that said, “this attack was against every home in our community.”

Condolences came from around the country, many on Western Union telegrams. Addison Reese, president of NCNB, the precursor to the Bank of America, wrote Kelly Alexander Sr.:

“Please know it is my sincere wish that the citizens of our community can … continue to work together in making substantial strides in the area of race relations.”

A week later, 2,500 people of both races packed Ovens Auditorium to hear national NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, Mayor Stan Brookshire and other leaders deplore the violence and appeal for unity.

“This week Charlotte has shown that it can withstand the assaults of prejudice, hate and crime without falling victim to panic,” Brookshire said. “Except for this good community climate we might have had a conflagration that … set us back a score of years.”

And on Dec. 5, 120 ministers gathered for worship in front of the homes of Kelly and Fred Alexander. Around 500 people joined them.

“Charlotte was so intensely concerned about its reputation as a place of racial fairness, largely I think for economic reasons, and (the bombing) was a huge blow to that,” Douglas says. “Charlotte did not want to believe that this could happen … and was worried about what could happen to its progressive reputation on race.”

The bombings came three months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act and a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act. Historian David Garrow says it was no accident the bombings came after signs of civil rights progress in Washington and Charlotte.

“You get spasms of violent terrorism when unhappy, potentially violent people know that their side is really losing,” Garrow says. “None of these bombings or killings happen at random times. They are really a response to events that indicate fundamental political defeat for the violent side.”

Change comes slowly

On a living room wall of Alexander’s brick ranch, the same home bombed 50 years ago, hangs a framed editorial cartoon from 1965. It shows an arm marked “Charlotteans” holding a scrub brush. Next to a bucket on the floor is a mess labeled “bombings.”

But despite the immediate response, the bombings did not spark wholesale change.

Two weeks after the attacks, in a letter to Brookshire, a group of black leaders said little had fundamentally changed. They demanded immediate desegregation of schools and more public housing.

“It wasn’t something that was transformative,” historian David Goldfield of UNC Charlotte says of the bombings. “But it did jolt some people … that we’re not immune to the fires of prejudice.”

Change came slowly. In 1966, the Shrine Bowl was integrated when two black players, including West Charlotte’s Titus Ivory, were named to the North Carolina team.

After the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling, a school busing plan aimed at full-scale integration went into effect in 1974. Busing for integration continued until 1999, when a federal judge ordered CMS to stop using race as a factor in student assignment plans. In 2002, the Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling, effectively closing the Swann case.

Since then the racial balance has slipped backwards. More than half of CMS black and Hispanic students now attend schools that some call re-segregated, where at least 90 percent of students are nonwhite and poverty levels are high.

To be sure, gains were made. A half-century after Fred Alexander’s election, the city has had three black mayors and the council has six black members.

But last year a study on upward mobility of children in large metropolitan areas by Harvard University and University of California-Berkeley ranked Charlotte last among the nation’s 50 largest cities. A task force is trying to address the problem.

“Charlotte still has a long way to go in fostering true equality,” says historian Tom Hanchett. “And I think that would be agonizing to the four families who experienced that violence in their own homes.”

For Kelly Alexander Jr., the lasting lesson of the bombing isn’t that city has erased all its racial problems, but that it learned to deal with them non-violently.

“There was a lot of racist sentiment floating out there,” he says. “And for our community to essentially reject all of that and say, that’s not what Charlotte stands for, just made a lasting impression on me.

“Charlotte has been a place where consensus-building has been engrained in all of us. And I believe that.”

Staff writer Gary Schwab contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

The bombing victims

Kelly Alexander Sr.: A Charlotte native, he was state NAACP president in 1965. A quarter-century earlier he had revived the inactive Charlotte branch. He was appointed to the national NAACP board in 1950 and elected vice president in 1976. Seven years later, he was named national chairman. He died in April 1985.

Fred Alexander: He was the first black member of the Charlotte Chamber and a charter member of the mayor’s community relations committee. In 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act became law, the man who’d spent much of his life fighting for voting rights became the first African American elected to Charlotte’s City Council in the 20th century. He died in 1980.

Julius Chambers: In 1964, Chambers opened North Carolina’s first integrated law firm in Charlotte. He attracted lawyers who have gone on to leave their own mark, including former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt. A native of Mt. Gilead, he went on to head the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and serve as president of N.C. Central University. He died in 2013.

Reginald Hawkins: The man who’s been called “the father of Charlotte’s civil rights movement” grew up in Beaufort. A dentist and a minister, he was outspoken and confrontational in his fight for desegregation. “We shall not be pacified with gradualism,” he told a crowd in 1963. “We want freedom and we want it now.” In 1968 he became the first African American to run for governor. He died in 2007.

The unsolved crimes

Police and the FBI received tips after the 1965 bombings, but no arrests were ever made. If you have information about the bombings, send an email to jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com or call 704-358-5059.