North Carolina looms large in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
From the sit-ins at a “whites-only” lunch counter in Greensboro to high school student Dorothy Counts’ dignity in braving racist taunts as she desegregated Harding High School in Charlotte, the state was the scene of many of the movement’s most significant events and some of its most iconic images.
Less-familiar episodes in that rich history are also worth recalling.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, offered a preview of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Rocky Mount nine months before famously delivering it as the culmination of the March on Washington.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
And a 1940s forerunner of the 1961 Freedom Rides landed one of its brave black resisters on a chain-gang following a white mob riot in Chapel Hill.
“North Carolina played a huge role” in the Civil Rights Movement, said Tim Tyson, the Durham-based author of several award-winning books on race and the South, including “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “The Blood of Emmett Till.”
A Raleigh reader wanted to know more about the state’s role in the historic struggle for equal rights for African-Americans. So she reached out to Curious NC, a joint venture between The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to submit questions about North Carolina for our reporters to answer.
We combed history books and websites, and called on two of the Tar Heel State’s top authorities on civil rights history: Tyson, who’s also a scholar at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, and Willie Griffin, staff historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South.
For starters, Griffin and Tyson made it clear that the Civil Rights Movement — and North Carolina’s role in it — started well before the mid-1950s. That’s been the starting point in many school textbooks, which cite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling ordering the desegregation of public schools and the emergence of a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56.
In 1929, Griffin said, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took on the issue of police aggression toward Charlotte’s black community. And by the 1930s, the focus of the NAACP’s “energetic, diverse and ever-changing” local branches in the state also included voting rights for African-Americans, Tyson said.
That push for power at the polls picked up steam in North Carolina in the 1940s, especially after World War II. In 1946, Tyson said, black veterans came home and organized statewide voter registration drives.
By the early 1950s, with many African-Americans voting in the state’s bigger cities, Winston-Salem and Durham elected their first black city council members, Tyson said.
Black North Carolinians also pushed for economic opportunities.
The Veterans Welfare Association spear-headed marches and protests “demanding access to civil service jobs and licenses to drive taxis,” said Griffin. “We often think of integration and voting rights as the two pillars of the civil rights movement. But economics was really the foundation of it. That was what slavery was about.”
As early as 1933, about 2,500 African-Americans — many of them teachers — gathered at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium for an NAACP-sponsored event designed to raise issues of inequality. As described in Sarah Caroline Thuesen’s book, “Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965,” the meeting drew attention to the fact that black teachers were paid less than white teachers with the same experience and training.
“The meeting ... marked an important new phase in black activism in the state,” Thuesen wrote in a 2013 blog post. But it wasn’t until 1944 that state officials, worried about court cases brought by black teachers in neighboring Virginia, “equalized” teacher salaries in North Carolina, Thuesen reported.
Starting in the late 1940s, state NAACP President Kelly Alexander Sr. of Charlotte began a decades-long assault on segregation. “The N.C. NAACP, under Kelly Alexander, filed more school integration lawsuits in the late 1940s and early 1950s — one after another — than any other state (NAACP) conference in the South,” said Tyson.
Over time, “Mr. NAACP,” as some called Alexander, also built the North Carolina NAACP into “a force in the state and the largest NAACP (conference) in the nation,” said the New York Times in its 1985 obituary of Alexander. Another North Carolinian, Ella Baker, who grew up in Halifax County, expanded the national ranks of the NACCP by 900 percent over a three-year period (1943-46) as national director of the civil rights group’s local branches.
Black journalists in North Carolina used their editorial voices and reporting skills to champion equal rights.
Tyson mentioned Durham’s Louis Austin, editor of the Carolina Times. In his weekly columns during World War II, Austin pressed for an end to discrimination in the military and the defense industries as well as better wages for domestic workers and the hiring of “Negro policemen where Negros are involved.”
Griffin said the Depression-era work of Charlotte native Trezzvant Anderson — roving newspaper correspondent, labor activist and railway postal clerk — “informed the (civil rights) movement. Martin Luther King read him.”
Among the injustices spotlighted by the crusading Anderson, Griffin said, was the bigotry practiced by Paul Yount, Charlotte’s postmaster and president of the National Postmasters Association. Yount used a requirement that job seekers provide a photo ID to identify and rule out the employment of black applicants. Anderson’s expose, Griffin said, helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8587 in 1940, thereby ending the application photo requirements for civil service employment.
Key N.C. civil rights events
North Carolina figured in the civil rights story in other ways:
▪ In 1947, members of the Congress of Racial Equality launched the “Journey of Reconciliation,” a plan to test the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation in interstate travel. An interracial group boarded buses bound for the South. In Chapel Hill, five members of the team were dragged off the bus and beaten by a white mob. They were then arrested by police for violating North Carolina’s “Jim Crow” laws. One of the arrested black resisters, Bayard Rustin, wrote about his 30 days on the chain-gang. “The publicity (from his article),” Tyson said, “helped put an end to chain-gangs in North Carolina.” And the CORE group’s action later inspired the more famous Freedom Riders to take a similar journey in 1961.
▪ In 1957, 15-year-old Dorothy Counts and three other black students were admitted to four previously segregated public schools in Charlotte. This angered many local whites, with one woman, Tyson said, urging girls in the crowd surrounding Counts to “Spit on her! Spit on her!” Photographs of Counts’ courage in the face of racial hostility ran on newspaper front pages around the world. “It became a symbol of desegregation,” Tyson said of the pictures. Efforts to desegregate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools eventually led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Swann decision in 1971, which held that busing could be used to keep schools racially balanced.
The case, brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was presented by Charlotte’s Julius Chambers, whose car, home and law office were bombed by white supremacists.
▪ In 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T bought some small items at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro and then sat down at its “whites-only” lunch counter. Their requests to order were ignored and the manager called the police. The students were not arrested, but the photo of the “Greensboro Four” inspired sit-ins across the South. This was also the dawn of the television age, Griffin said, and images of the sit-ins went into Americans’ living rooms.
Hoping to tap into the energy of the students who participated in the sit-ins, Baker, who had spurred grassroots activism with the NAACP, called a conference at Shaw University, a historic black college in Raleigh. Then and there, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was born. It would be in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.
The sit-ins — immortalized at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with a replica of the Greensboro lunch counter — “turned the Civil Rights Movement into a mass movement,” Tyson said. “It turned it into a South-wide and national movement, one rooted in non-violence and driven by the energy of youth.”