Commentary

Christensen: The state Capitol’s first civil rights demonstration was 65 years ago

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2014 

We have grown accustomed to seeing thousands of people descend on the state Capitol to protest the policies of the legislature.

But it wasn’t always so. And when the Capitol was picketed for the first time 65 years ago, the effect was electric.

On March 30, 1949, a majority of the students enrolled in the law school at what is now N.C. Central University – 15 of 23 students – picketed the Capitol, while the legislature met inside.

The students, carrying placards, asked the legislature for money for a separate building and law library for the Durham college. A student spokesman, Harold Epps, said facilities were required before the American Bar Association would accredit the school and allow its graduates to practice law in other states.

To put the picketing in some context, this was the era of Jim Crow segregation, before most black people could vote, and more than a decade before four students launched the civil rights movement in North Carolina by demanding service at a segregated Greensboro lunch counter. Secretary of State Thad Eure said he believed it was the first time the Capitol had been picketed.

Lawmakers were stunned, and it was the talk of the legislative chambers.

“I think it is reprehensible that the students of a school to which the General Assembly has been so generous should picket the Capitol,” said Sen. Lee Weathers of Cleveland. Weathers and Sen. Claude Currie of Durham noted that the joint appropriations committee had recently recommended $200,000 for the Durham campus.

Rep. Robert Gantt of Durham, a member of N.C. Central’s board of trustees, said the school’s administration was “humiliated and mortified” by the students’ actions. (Gantt was white. No blacks would serve in the General Assembly for another 20 years.)

Gantt blamed L.E. Austin, the crusading editor of The Carolina Times, a black-oriented newspaper in Durham, for stirring up the students.

The students noted that $15,000 worth of used law books had been given to the law school by City College of New York in 1945, but because there was no place to put them, the books were stacked against a wall in an auditorium, unshelved, unindexed, with some books suffering from damage because of mites. The News and Observer ran a photograph of the books piled high.

The N.C. Central law school was created by the 1939 legislature to provide a separate-but-equal option for blacks who were barred from the state-supported law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After Shaw University closed its law school in 1914, black law students had traveled out of state to get their legal training until the law school in Durham was created.

In 1949, there were four black law schools in the country. Two were accredited – Howard University in Washington and another in St. Louis. Two were unaccredited, the one in Durham and a second in Orangeburg, S.C.

The placards of the picketers read: “S.C. has a $250,000 law school building. What have we?” “We’re citizens of North Carolina. We want to attend an accredited law school.” “North Carolina is disregarding a United States Supreme Court decision. We want equal facilities now.”

The News and Observer editorial called the picketing “a silly demonstration” that was “regrettable” but should not be taken too seriously. Still, it noted that the students had a “just grievance.”

“They have been promised an accredited law school for years,” it said. “The promise has not been redeemed, through no fault of the students.” The paper said World War II had prevented construction of a law school building.

Epps, the leading spokesman for the law students, would be a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit in 1950 challenging the whites-only policy of the law school at the UNC-Chapel Hill. One of the lawyers handling the suit was Thurgood Marshall, the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The plaintiffs prevailed, and UNC law school was integrated in 1951.

The law school at N.C. Central was accredited in 1950 by the American Bar Association.

One of its proudest moments came in a 1963-64 regional moot competition, when its team, led by future Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, defeated moot teams from the law schools of UNC, Duke and the University of South Carolina, before losing a controversial decision to the University of Virginia.

“That showed me right there that this little bitty black law school can produce a level of legal education and preparation on a par with any law school in the nation,” Jackson would later recall.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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