During the early- and mid-20th century, when white supremacists and Jim Crow laws ruled the South, black journalists played a pivotal role in the struggle for equal rights.
Durham was home to a particularly courageous black journalist, Louis Austin, who edited and published the weekly newspaper, The Carolina Times, from 1927 to 1971. The grandson of slaves, Austin was born in 1898 in a one-room house in Enfield, N.C., about 85 miles east of Durham. Throughout his life, he bravely fought against economic injustice, police brutality, racial segregation and white supremacy.
In his editorials, Austin did not mince words – the paper’s motto was “The Truth Unbridled.” In 1938, after a filibuster by southern U.S. senators, including North Carolina’s Josiah Bailey and Robert Reynolds, had succeeded in killing an anti-lynching bill, Austin sarcastically observed that North Carolina’s “liberty loving senators” had helped win for the white man “the right to lynch.” In this editorial, which was printed next to a photograph of a naked African American hung from a tree by a lynch mob, Austin wrote, “Thank God the right to lynch is a white man’s right. He alone enjoys the lust of human blood. He alone enjoys carrying in his pockets human toes, fingers, etc., of a dead Negro, as a reminder that he is the supreme ruler of this nation.”
Despite frequent threats, Austin refused to temper his outspoken advocacy for racial equality. The courageous editor once told an interviewer of an occasion when a local white man told him to leave town, or else. Austin replied that he would not be intimidated by him, or anyone else. That night, a group of Austin’s friends stood guard on his front porch to defend him. There was no attack.
Austin’s advocacy did not stop with the printed word. Like other contemporary militant black activists, he charted a new strategy, which employed legal action and embraced electoral politics through the Democratic Party. Instead of being satisfied with incremental change in slowly reducing the inequities of segregation, Austin employed a confrontational style and fought for equality for all and the destruction of segregation.
In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Austin joined with local black attorneys Conrad Pearson and Cecil McCoy, in backing the first challenge to segregated higher education in the South. Although a state court ruled against Thomas Hocutt’s attempt to enroll in the pharmacy school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, this seminal case signaled the opening salvo in the battle against segregated public education. It led to the landmark US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
Austin was also a leader in the movement for voting rights and political power for blacks in North Carolina. In 1934, Austin and movie theater owner Frederick Watkins were elected justices of the peace in Durham. The Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed, “For the first time in the history of the South, two colored men were elected to office on the Democratic ticket.”
In 1935, Louis Austin joined with other leading black citizens to form the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA), to register black voters, increase black political influence, and challenge inequities in education, employment, and access to public facilities. Despite obstacles to black voting like the literacy test and racist white registrars, Austin helped register thousands of African Americans, which gave blacks a voice in politics in Durham and throughout the state. In 1953, he handled public relations for Rencher N. Harris’s successful campaign to become the first black member of the Durham City Council.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Austin joined with a new generation of activists in the modern civil rights movement. He continued to support litigation and political action, but also advocated civil disobedience. Austin lived to see the fruits of his labor as de jure segregation was ended. Nonetheless, there was still work to do. In 1971, the year of his death, Austin was still speaking out for equity in education, when he challenged the practice whereby majority-white school boards replaced black principals with white principals as public schools integrated.
Jerry Gershenhorn is a professor of history at N.C. Central University.