Most North Carolinians believe the Civil Rights Movement occurred strictly in the 1960s, with the start of the Sit-Ins at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The movement, however, began much earlier, and one can argue that its roots lay in the Civil-War period.
The Civil Rights Movement was an effort, among many things, to overturn segregation, commonly known as Jim Crow legislation. Throughout the Jim Crow South (1890-1960), state laws required blacks and whites to use separate facilities, attend different schools, sit in different places in theaters and buses, and even to be buried in different areas in cemeteries—to draw only four illustrations from various cases. As early as the 1930s, African Americans protested these laws. In Greensboro, black ministers boycotted the War Memorial Auditorium’s opening, and young people there started a theater boycott. Lumberton youth marched to protest a lack of educational opportunities. Meanwhile during the twentieth century, municipality leaders, including Charlotteans, used local ordinances to create residential segregation.
The Civil Rights Movement, as it commonly known, began in the 1950s. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown decision, and schools were ordered to desegregate. For some time North Carolina avoided compliance, with various creative ideas such as the Pearsall Plan. Meanwhile in the 1950s, North Carolina blacks started what would become known as sit –ins. In 1957 seven blacks, for example, demanded service in the white section of a Durham ice cream parlor.
In 1960, a series of events occurred in North Carolina and began the Civil Rights Movement in earnest. The Greensboro Sit-In occurred in North Carolina, and this demonstration gained national attention and set an example for others to follow throughout the Jim Crow South. Four N.C. A & T State University students walked to the downtown Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, sat in the white section of the store’s restaurant, and demanded service. In time, more and more students started protesting in Greensboro and protests spread to Raleigh. In the capital city, Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College students carried out sit-ins at various stores. At other time, college students picketed stores. Picketers, in one instance, were arrested at Cameron Village. Although storeowners initially resisted accommodating the blacks, they eventually complied for legal and economic purposes.
Several organizations helped organize and energize the Civil Rights Movement. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored the Freedom Rides in 1961; black and white bus riders boarded Greyhounds and Trailways buses and challenged segregation on the buses and in the bus stations. In North Carolina, the riders experienced no violent resistance. The following year, the organization led a successful campaign against Howard Johnson’s restaurants. During the mid-1960s and under the leadership of Floyd B. McKissick, a Durham attorney, CORE embraced black nationalism. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), like CORE, evolved into a more confrontational group. Ella Baker of Raleigh trained students to live in the rural South and to participate in task forces assigned to educate rural blacks and register them to vote. In the mid-1960s, student enthusiasm waned for the nonviolent approach, but under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, student interest revived as the organization promoted black nationalism and black power. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a legal arm of the Civil Rights Movement, worked to ensure that the law was applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. Reginald Hawkins was a prominent leader. Kelly Alexander reorganized the Charlotte NAACP chapter and emerged as one of the Tar Heel State’s leading civil rights leaders during the 1950s and 1960s. Ministers led the Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC), an influential organization that consistently employed nonviolent means. A well-known North Carolina SCLC leader was Golden Aros Franks; he led various protests in eastern North Carolina towns.
Although Kenneth R. Williams served on the Winston Salem Board of Aldermen during the late 1940s, North Carolina blacks, as a voting bloc, lost political power during the late 1890s and lacked political power, until the passage of national legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. After blacks regained their suffrage rights, more and more blacks could run for political office and were elected to public office. Others were appointed to public office. Henry E. Frye, for example, was appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court and became the first African American to serve in that capacity.