Monday, June 30, 2014

A Look Back: Charlotte and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- Part I

July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the historical Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Charlotte area played a huge role from the beginning. In this two-part series our Dr. Tom takes a look back on Charlotte's impact in the Civil Rights movement and the actions that lead to the passing of this landmark legislative bill.


The 1964 Civil Rights Act remade the South and America.  The law mandated the end of segregation in “public accommodations”: restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, and more. Congress did not simply swoop down and declare this new order.  Civil Rights activists fought long and hard to put equality on the nation’s agenda. Key actions in that struggle took place right here in Charlotte and the Carolinas.  As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, enacted July 2, 1964, it is a good time to share some of those stories.

Since the Plessy v Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court in 1896, racial segregation had been the law of the land.  Plessy held that separate accommodations on trains and in railroad stations, and by extension anywhere else, were OK … as long as they were “separate but equal.”  In reality, things were definitely separate but seldom if ever equal. Segregation was blatant south of the Mason Dixon Line but most communities outside Dixie also had formal or informal “color lines” separating urban areas and businesses into white and black categories.

In Charlotte, City Hall had “white” and “colored” water fountains.  Those actual signs are on display in the Museum's COTTON FIELDS TO SKYSCRAPERS exhibition.  Also at the Museum you can see a re-creation of the Carolina Theater. It admitted only whites; black people went to the Lincoln Theater which seldom showed first-run films. When Independence Park opened in 1903, city law barred black people with the exception of black nannies who brought white children to play.  Such regulations carried over even to the city-owned golf course at Revolution Park, when black youngsters could be caddies but could not play.  One caddie, Charlie Sifford, snuck in at night and perfected his game to the point that he went pro, the first African American on the PGA Tour.

Black people challenged segregation from the beginning.  When North Carolina started requiring African Americans to sit at the back of streetcars in 1906, Charlotte ministers led a boycott, unsuccessfully.  That’s long before Rosa Parks and the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956.  Another “before Rosa” action happened at Revolution Park golf course. African American doctors, lawyers and other professionals in Charlotte wanted to play golf.  In 1951 they sued to desegregate the park.  The lawsuit meandered through the courts for years, eventually winning in the late 1950s.  If it had been speedily decided, we’d be reading about it in national history books today.

A Look Back: Charlotte and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 continues tomorrow...

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