The Story of Charlotte, Part 11: A Time of Unrest
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Charlotte tears down a neighborhood and disperses its people, a young lawyer fights for civil rights, and the buses roll
In 2013, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. In this 12-part series, Charlotte magazine is looking back at life in the region through the years. From the town’s beginnings as a rural crossroads, this series traces Charlotte’s growth and highlights the turning points that led to it becoming a major U.S. city.
1965—It’s 1 a.m. on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and Kelly Alexander is still awake. The head of North Carolina’s NAACP, Alexander stays up late a lot these days, thinking about protest strategies and the school desegregation cases that are causing a stir in courtrooms and classrooms throughout Mecklenburg County and the rest of the country. Not long after Alexander finally shuts off his light, two blasts shatter the silence on his suburban West Charlotte street. A pack of dynamite, placed at the front porch, sends shards of glass flying through the room where Alexander’s two sons sleep.
Somehow, no one is hurt. But the bombing of the homes of Charlotte’s four most prominent Civil Rights leaders shatters more than glass. The blasts destroy the illusion that the city is immune to the racial violence playing out throughout the country in the wake of desegregation orders. The burning riots in Northern cities and the attack dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs in the Deep South—somehow, Charlotte has avoided all of that. Until now.
For a few years, city leaders—including mayor Stan Brookshire and members of the Chamber of Commerce—have urged restaurant and hotel owners to desegregate quietly. And for the most part, that approach has worked. Still, aside from some token integration, the schools remain mostly segregated. Julius Chambers, a civil rights lawyer new in Charlotte, has been trying to change that. He represents Johnson C. Smith professor Darius Swann in his lawsuit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. Swann’s son, James, has been assigned to the all-black Biddleville Elementary despite the fact integrated Seversville Elementary is closer to the Swanns’ home.
Of the 20,000 black students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, only 822 are enrolled in integrated schools during the 1964-65 school year. A year later, the school system allows for a significant increase in the number of black students transferring to predominantly white schools. The best known transfer is Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick.
A running back on the Myers Park High School football team, Kirkpatrick is on his way to a school-record 19-touchdown season. He seems a shoo-in for the December Shrine Bowl, an All-Star game pitting the best high school players from North Carolina against the best from South Carolina. When Kirkpatrick is nominated but not selected for the North Carolina team, Chambers files a lawsuit seeking desegregation of the game. Although Kirkpatrick won’t get to play in that year’s game, the lawsuit is settled out of court in February 1966, and black players are allowed to play in the game the next season.
It’s the football lawsuit, Chambers believes, that sets off the bombings. The city responds with support—about 150 masons and carpenters and bricklayers volunteer to fix the damaged homes. At a rally in the recently built Ovens Auditorium on Independence Boulevard, a crowd of 2,500 white and black Charlotteans gathers to speak out against the violence. “The good name of North Carolina is at stake,” The Charlotte Observer writes.
Still, the bombers will never be found.
“It’s a discouraging thing,” Kelly Alexander tells the New York Times. “We thought Charlotte was an oasis.”
CHARLOTTE IN THE LATE 1960s is no oasis. In fact, it’s a pretty rough place. In 1968, the city makes more national headlines with the second-highest murder rate in the nation. Downtown seems more and more deserted after dark. The department stores are still open for business, but they’re losing a steady stream of customers to the suburban strip malls on Independence Boulevard and Park Road. In Fourth Ward, rows of Victorian homes rot and crumble. Dilworth, too, is a hodgepodge of boarding houses and blighted blocks. In Freedom Park, groups of long-haired youths gather on Hippie Hill, which overlooks the lake. There, they sell and smoke marijuana. It’s all a little too much for the neighbors. “Can Dilworth be Saved?” asks a headline in The Charlotte Observer.
Still, the people keep coming. Almost 40,000 arrive in Charlotte in the 1960s. Out at the old Army airfield, now Douglas Municipal Airport, daily flights arrive from Miami and Pittsburgh and New York and New Orleans, bringing businessmen and office workers. They come for jobs with insurance companies and banks and airlines relocating to Charlotte. The businesses are being lured by lower taxes and wages, the Chamber of Commerce’s constant advertising campaigns in the Wall Street Journal, and recruiting trips up north. A new generation of city boosters boasts of the Charlotte area’s size. In 1968, when population estimates show that the Greensboro/Winston-Salem census area has a slight edge over Charlotte, the Chamber redraws the lines to create its own 12-county region: “Metrolina.” The Raleigh newspapers mock the Charlotte boosters’ transparent promotion as “a high tech made up word.”
In the Brooklyn neighborhood, the bulldozers pick up their pace, leveling hundreds of acres of homes and businesses near the Little Sugar Creek to make way for new streets and government buildings. The hundreds of black families who once lived there scatter to neighborhoods on the north and west sides. They aren’t exactly welcomed by their new neighbors, many of them white mill workers and truck drivers and factory hands. The stage is set for conflict.
IN 1965, it seemed like the Swann case was over and that Chambers had won. The school board had accepted desegregated districts. Still, as the end of the decade nears, almost 60 percent of black students remain in all-black schools. When the Supreme Court declares in 1968 that school systems have an “affirmative duty” to ensure integration, Chambers sues the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools again.
In March 1969, this time in front of newly appointed District Court Judge James McMillan, Chambers lays out his case. As the city has grown, Chambers says, it’s also become more segregated with whites settling on the southeast side and blacks to the north and west. The school district lines reflect that segregated pattern. This housing segregation, Chambers argues, is a result of countless planning and policy decisions dating back decades.
On April 23, 1969, McMillan hands down his decision—“When racial segregation was required by law, nobody evoked the neighborhood school theory to permit black children to attend white schools closer to where they lived. … There is no reason except emotion … why school buses can not be used … to desegregate the schools.”
“Jim,” school board chairman William Poe says in a phone conversation with McMillan after the decision, “I just wonder if you want to start your career this way.”
ON SEPTEMBER 9, 1970, 525 school buses set off around the county, almost 200 more than the year before. Some are only half-full of children on this first day of school. The anti-busing Concerned Parents Association, which has picketed in front of McMillan’s house and sent petitions with more than 67,000 signatures to President Nixon’s office in Washington, calls for a boycott of the public schools. Thousands stay home in protest or to avoid the inevitable conflict. Private school enrollment increases by 3,500 students. More than 6,000 others, mostly white students, will leave for private schools in the next five years.
At the Education Center downtown, the school system sets up a “war room,” with the superintendent, other high-ranking school officials, and the chiefs of police from the city and the county. They wait by the phone for the inevitable bomb threats. The first call comes in at 7 a.m., on the first day of school, a threat directed at an administrator’s home. Five other bomb threats on schools throughout the county come that day, and there are more the next day. During the next few months, the headlines are a blur of fights and riots at high schools. Outside Harding High School—which moved into a new building in the early 1960s, not long after Dorothy Counts marched through taunts and slurs to the old location 13 years earlier—the mass fights are so frequent that police stand outside with tear gas and masks ready to break up the next riot. On October 20, six black boys jump a white boy at knifepoint at West Mecklenburg High School; on December 1, a white boy draws a pistol on a group of black students at West Charlotte High School. In the next three years, each of the city’s 10 high schools will have to close for at least a few days because of race riots.
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds McMillan’s decision in April 1971, but it seems hardly anyone is happy with the new system. Black students still bear most of the burden of busing, leaving their neighborhoods at higher rates than white children. In white neighborhoods in the working-class north and west sides of town, parents find their children bused more frequently and farther than those in the southeast side of town—where affluent neighborhoods stretch south and east from Myers Park. Six of the nine school board members live in that part of the city.
Myers Park, it seems, has ruled the city for decades. In citywide elections, candidates from the neighborhood almost always come out on top. The mayor and several county officials live there. Judge McMillan lives in the neighborhood, too. Now, people in other parts of town begin to resent the “downtown business, Chamber of Commerce establishment.” That’s what Jim McDuffie, an anti-busing activist from Eastway Drive, says he’s running against when he faces off with John Belk in the 1973 mayoral race. McDuffie loses but carries most of the northeast side of town.
As Charlotte’s city limits push outward, some suburbs north and west of town push back. In Oakdale, a few miles northwest of the city on N.C. Highway 16, neighbors lobby the North Carolina General Assembly to allow them to incorporate as a town—just to avoid being annexed by the city. More than 1,400 of the 3,500 people who live in the still-rural community sign a petition to break away.
“I think it is time somebody listened to the people, damn it,” says state Senator Herman Moore, who supports the neighborhood’s push. “[Oakdale] said very plainly that they don’t like the proposals of the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council.”
Despite Moore’s support, the General Assembly turns down Oakdale.
The School Board makes the resentment worse. Fearing the loss of more white students to private schools, the board continues to present plans that exempt the Myers Park and other affluent southeastern neighborhoods from busing. McMillan, still overseeing the move to school busing five years after his first ruling in the case, keeps telling the board to revise the plans. Meanwhile, in the schools, the fights continue.
Some city leaders keep their distance from the school controversy. Mayor Belk goes so far as to dismiss questions about busing, saying “that comes under the county budget, not under the city budget.” The City of Charlotte has problems of its own. For a decade now, the Chamber has been fighting a conservative state legislature in Raleigh for the right to serve liquor-by-the-drink. Mixed drinks, the Chamber says, will be good for the economy. High-class cocktails will bring hotels and restaurants and a better class of nightlife. What’s bad for the economy, the City Council says, are the cheap beer joints and strip clubs and gambling houses that are beginning to take over older buildings uptown and along Central Avenue.
A group of parents and activists from throughout the county has been meeting to talk about potential solutions to the busing crisis. The group, led by south Charlotte parent Maggie Ray, has grown tired of the back and forth between the school board and McMillan. In 1974, McMillan decides to listen to this collection of 25 people, who come from all over the county and range from militant black activists to rural white anti-busing activists. They spend the first couple of meetings “yelling at each other,” says Bill Smith, a group member from the Hidden Valley neighborhood. But soon, they settle on a plan. It involves three main points: No student will be entirely exempt from busing; students from the wealthiest white neighborhoods will attend West Charlotte High School; and each black student will be guaranteed at least three years at a school close to home. After County Commissioners chairman W.T. Harris announces his support of the proposal, the school board agrees to negotiate.
Each morning during the early summer of 1974, Ray negotiates with former Central High School principal Ed Sanders on the finer points of the plan—which middle schools will feed into which high school, on which block lines will be drawn. Finally, on July 9, the school board approves the new plan.
Even Poe, the school board chairman who has spent the past five years fighting McMillan’s order, admits the plan just might work. “We have frankly sought stability by consciously giving to every neighborhood some reason to be unhappy about its school assignment at some point between kindergarten and graduation. It’s an odd way to gain stability, but it does show some promise.”
As the buses roll out of the garages in September 1974, Charlotte waits for the bomb threats and the riots and the fights. But all is quiet. Soon the national media call Charlotte a “success story.” The next year, students from Boston schools, where busing has led to violence, visit Charlotte in an exchange program to see the city that made busing work.
Downtown, the Chamber of Com-merce is ready to get back to business. In 1978, the Chamber wins a big victory when Charlotte voters approve liquor-by-the-drink by more than a 2-1 margin. Eager to leave the stigma of racial unrest behind, the Chamber unveils its new slogan: “Charlotte—a good place to make money.” You wouldn’t know it by looking at the downtown streets after 5 p.m. The few remaining shops struggle to survive. On November 27, 1978, the Carolina Theatre shows its last movie, a Bruce Lee film called Fist of Fury.
Two blocks away, though, the lights are on in the new 40-story North Carolina National Bank building as a new set of power brokers plans Charlotte’s next chapter.