Fact Friday #17 - Charlotte in the Civil Rights Era


It’s another beautiful day in Zamunda Charlotte and the weather is considerably better than last week! 

If you are a member of the Harvey B. Gantt Center or perhaps just signed up for their email distribution list, you may have known about their new exhibit opening today (October 9), I'm Walkin' For My Freedom: The Selma March And Voting Rights. “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, the most significant of all civil rights marches and the one that led directly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act mandated federal oversight of all US counties with a history of voter discrimination against African Americans, and opened the door to voting for most Americans.”

When we think about the Civil Rights Movement (1950s-1970s), naturally we may more immediately recall events that occurred in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, or Washington, D.C. But Charlotte had some pretty incredible contributions and contributors during this era, as well!

Did you know:

  • On the national stage, there was Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Two renowned civil rights leaders with different approaches to the same goal. But here at home, we had Frederick Douglas Alexander and Reginald Hawkins, similarly two sides to the same coin.

Frederick Douglas Alexander

Benefiting from the momentum of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Alexander was the first African-American elected to the Charlotte City Council (1965) and the first African-American to hold elected public office in Mecklenburg County since the 1890s. He was named after Frederick Douglass, famed social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer, and was described as having a “diplomatic demeanor.” Beginning in the 1930s, Alexander devoted considerable amounts of time to registering African-Americans to vote, and lobbied for the appointment of African-American police officers and mail carriers, as well as for business courses in the African-American high schools. In order to secure his seat on City Council, Alexander understood that he would need to carefully build his political base by seeking appointments to high profile institutions to become better known among the affluent. On his way, he became the first African-American member of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in 1962 and of the Mecklenburg County Board of Public Welfare in 1963. He was picked to serve on the Mayor's (Brookshire) Community Relations Committee and became a member of the Executive Committee of the Mecklenburg County Democrat Party in 1964. He later went on to become a North Carolina state senator (1975-80). By and large, Alexander made a conscious decision to use the existing system to try and change it from within and improve conditions for people of color in his community. Sound familiar?

Reginald Hawkins

A dentist and Presbyterian minister, retired UNC Charlotte professor, Dr. Dan L. Morrill describes Hawkins as having a penchant for publicity and was the “most strident voice in the local African-American community.” His style and messaging often put him at odds with Mayor Brookshire, whose progressive views on race relations stemmed from his views on progress via stability and economic enterprise. In short, Brookshire other business elite felt racial segregation and hostility were bad for business, thus bad for the city. In the early 1960s, in protest to unequal treatment, lunch counter sit-ins and marches were organized. Hawkins purposely chose the 188th anniversary of the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775 to lead hundreds of Johnson C. Smith students on a protest march against racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, motels, or any other business establishment that served the general public. Not afraid to warn the establishment of impending violence if conditions were not changed, Hawkins’ style was much more direct and unapologetic. Sound familiar?

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin and provides the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation. But prior to this sweeping federal legislation, in 1963 Mayor Brookshire knew that demonstrations were occurring in Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro, and that large numbers of protestors were being arrested. "Pete" McKnight of the Charlotte Observer telephoned Brookshire and suggested that decisive action was needed to maintain the peace. Brookshire agreed. He asked Ed Burnside , president of the Chamber of Commerce , to call a meeting of the Chamber's executive committee. These actions culminated in the Chamber of Commerce's approving a resolution on May 23rd calling upon businesses in the community to open their doors voluntarily to African Americans. 
  • Charlotte was the impetus behind a Supreme Court case that would impact how school desegregation could be implemented nationally. North Carolina was one of the more moderate Southern states, and its resistance to integration was weaker than in some other areas. After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, it had ended segregation with a school assignment plan based on neighborhoods that was approved by the Court. However, when Charlotte consolidated school districts from the city itself with the rest of Mecklenburg County, a surrounding area totaling 550 square miles, the majority of black students (who lived in central Charlotte) still attended mostly black schools as compared with majority white schools further outside the city. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1970), the court ruled that busing was an appropriate remedy for the problem of racial imbalance in schools, even when the imbalance resulted from the selection of students based on geographic proximity to the school rather than from deliberate assignment based on race. This was done to ensure the schools would be "properly" integrated and that all students would receive equal educational opportunities regardless of their race.

With impeccable timing as always, Andrew Dunn of Charlotte Agenda recently published an article, How Charlotte came to be a segregated city. He got a chance to hear Tom Hanchett, soon-to-be retired historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, speak recently and “came away with a new perspective on what it will take to solve some of Charlotte’s problems.” Hanchett will be giving a similar version of this talk – called “From Segregation to Salad-Bowl Suburbs” – on October 21 at the Levine Museum. You can also get the long-form version in his book, Sorting Out the New South City.

Until next week!

Chris.

Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

Fred Alexander (far right) Being Sworn In As Member Of The Charlotte City Council.Credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

To ensure students would receive equal educational opportunities regardless of their race, the High Court upheld busing programs to remedy racial imbalances in schools. 

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

Credit: BET.com