In the first half of the 20th century, more than 30 black citizens are lynched in North Carolina, and untold numbers of others suffer beatings and other acts of violence.
The struggle for racial equality becomes acute as black soldiers return from overseas military service after the war. They have become used to a greater measure of respect and freedom than in their old hometowns. But returning to the South, they encounter fierce and sometimes violent repression. And segregation by race remains a custom supported by law — as it has since 1896, when the Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was legal and adhered to the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
President Harry S. Truman, who holds office from 1945 until 1953, has never been a proponent of racial equality. But the list of new lynchings — especially those of veterans — appalls him, and he decides to do something dramatic. He issues an executive order, “Freedom From Fear,” establishing the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. On June 29, 1947, Truman addresses the NAACP — the first president to do so — from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character,” he declares. “When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.” Then, on July 26, 1948 — bucking resistance inside his own Democratic Party — he signs the order officially desegregating the armed forces.
It’s not just returning soldiers who encounter the harsh effects of racial inequality. In October 1945, 16-year-old Marie Everett approaches the concession stand at Carolina Theater in Wilson, which admits blacks but forces them to sit upstairs in a balcony known as the “crow’s nest.” As Everett stands next to her friend, who is buying popcorn, the white cashier demands that she get in line. Everett replies that she’s simply keeping her friend company and, as a parting shot, sticks out her tongue. According to Everett’s friend, the cashier smacks Everett and grabs her around the neck as Everett tries to kick her way loose. Everett is arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, which a vindictive judge escalates to simple assault. He sentences her to a $50 fine and three months in the county jail — three times the maximum allowable sentence.
“We decided that we were tired of doing that, and somebody was going to have to step forward.”
Local NAACP officials hire a white lawyer to appeal. In court, a prosecutor reminds the jury that this trial is meant to show blacks — who may have enjoyed better employment and other advantages during the war years — that they had better remember their place.
Eventually, Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the NAACP, takes up her case. After he and his colleagues engineer the intervention of the State Commissioner of Paroles, Gov. R. Gregg Cherry signs her parole. Everett is released in March 1946, having missed five months of school.
Meanwhile, other students find themselves on the front lines of the battle for civil rights.
Having been denied admission to the University of North Carolina’s School of Law, Floyd McKissick joins a suit brought against the school in 1949 — and, with Marshall’s help, he wins. In 1951, McKissick, Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, J. Kenneth Lee, and James Robert Walker become the first black law students at UNC.
The next year, Marshall, acting as head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argues in Brown v. Board of Education (the combination of five cases with the same legal principle at issue) that separate schools for black students are inherently unequal. In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivers the court’s unanimous decision: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal …”
North Carolina Gov. William Umstead announces he is “terribly disappointed” with the ruling. H.C. West, a statistician with the State Board of Education, laments the timing, declaring that the state was “within approximately $36,591,171 of equalizing the value of white and Negro public schools.” Santford Martin, former editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and the Twin City Sentinel and member of the State Board of Education, writes, “If the Negroes are wise, I think they will help solve our school problem by voluntary segregation.”
A majority of the state’s congressional delegation signs the so-called “Southern Manifesto,” authored by North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., which declares that Southern states will resist forced integration by any lawful means.
The North Carolina legislature reacts with a retrograde action to delay desegregation for as long as possible. Former Speaker of the House Thomas J. Pearsall of Rocky Mount chairs a Special Advisory Committee on Education and asserts that “the mixing of races forthwith in the public schools throughout the state cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted.”
She lays a hand on each of their shoulders. “Boys, I am so proud of you.”
Pearsall’s committee crafts legislation that comes to be known as the Pearsall Plan. Among other provisions, it specifies the following: Local districts will control the assignment of students to schools; students assigned to an integrated school against their wishes are excused from attending; and if such students wish to attend a private school, the state will pay them a tuition grant. The plan also includes an explicit “resolution of condemnation and protest” against the Brown decision. In a statewide referendum in 1956, more than 80 percent of voters approve the Pearsall Plan. White public schools in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem enroll some black students; students in other districts sue for inclusion. Ten years after the Brown decision, just one out of 100 black students attends a desegregated school.
On June 23, 1957, the Rev. Douglas Moore leads a group of African-Americans in staging a sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Company in Durham. The protesters are arrested; for legal counsel, Moore turns to a young lawyer who is by now well versed in the fight for desegregation: Floyd McKissick.
Though the defendants are ultimately found guilty of trespassing, the court case and subsequent appeals test the legality of segregated facilities, and spark a protest campaign against Royal Ice Cream that continues into the 1960s. The tide is turning, ever so slowly, toward equality.
As the spring semester opens at Agricultural & Technical College of North Carolina in 1960, a group of black freshmen holds regular meetings in their dormitory in Greensboro. Robert T. “Patt” Patterson, then a freshman majoring in engineering, remembers, “We talked about the things that as black men we had to go through — going upstairs in movie houses, having to go to the back windows to purchase food. At any of these restaurants, they had a designated place for us. We started talking about it … and we decided that we were tired of doing that, and somebody was going to have to step forward.”
Growing up in Laurinburg, Patterson would ask his father, “Why do we have to go upstairs?” The elder Patterson explained as best he could: It was the custom in North Carolina. “And when I came to A&T and the subject came up, it really made me angry — although when we were demonstrating, we chose to do it in a nonviolent way,” Patterson says. “As a result of that, none of us got into any kind of altercation with any of the whites that we ran into.”
On Monday, February 1, 1960, four of Patterson’s classmates step forward: Ezell Blair Jr. (later Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond. They enter F.W. Woolworth Co., buy a few items — as local custom allows — then sit at the lunch counter, which local custom forbids.
McCain is wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform. In truth, all four could have worn their uniforms — ROTC is required at A&T. If they are fit to defend their country, why can’t they be served a sit-down meal? As he takes his seat, McCain is filled with anxiety: What will happen when they try to order? In an interview with NPR, he recalls the moment that follows: “Fifteen seconds after … I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and [hadn’t] asked for service yet.” In that moment of quiet courage, he and his companions achieve a milestone — not just in their own lives, but for a movement.
The manager, Clarence Harris, asks the young men to leave. When they do not, Harris tells staff to ignore them. An older white woman is seated a few stools down from McCain, looking his way. He is sure she disapproves, wants him and the other black students to get out. She stands up to leave, pauses behind McCain and McNeil, lays a hand on each of their shoulders, and says the last thing he expects to hear: “Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn’t do this 10 years ago.”
The first sit-in at Woolworth lasts until closing. The four young men leave hungry. Next day, more students join them — including Patterson, the engineering major. He is considering switching his major to economics, but his involvement in the civil rights protests eventually causes the chair of that department to become concerned for his academic progress. “She called me in,” Patterson recounts. “She said, ‘I admire what you’re doing, but you’re going to open up doors you’re not going to be able to walk in yourself. You need to get your degree — if you’re going to take advantage of any of these things that are going to come out of this.’”
His father agrees, but he also commends his son’s passion for justice. He tells Patterson, “I’m not going to even try to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong … If my generation had had any guts, you all wouldn’t have had to do it.” Patterson earns his economics degree a year behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the protest gathers strength. Patterson remembers, “The A&T football team had won the conference championship that year, and all of the guys on the football team put on their CIAA championship jackets, and they were kind of the people that were protecting us the first week or so.”
The protest — now a movement — spreads to other lunch counters, and crowds of angry white men show up to harass and threaten the participants. By Thursday, the A&T protesters are joined by students from Bennett, a nearby college for black women. In the following days, students from Dudley High School and the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG) also show up. By Saturday, some 1,000 people are protesting the whites- only policy, and by the next week, sit-ins have spread to Woolworths in Durham, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte.
The choice of Woolworth — as well as the Kress cafeterias — is intentional, according to Patterson: “We deliberately picked the national firms because they had integrated facilities elsewhere … we figured it would spread faster that way.”
Not until July does the Greensboro Woolworth at last concede. The same manager who has refused to serve African-Americans for more than six months invites four black employees to sit at the counter. The segregation that has ruled North Carolina’s eating establishments has been broken — and soon, many lunch counters serve blacks and whites equally, although some shut down to avoid the choice. The nonviolent sit-in becomes one of the most successful tac- tics of the civil rights movement, spread- ing to Nashville, Richmond, and Atlanta.
For North Carolina, the Woolworth sit-in signals the beginning, not the end, of the newly energized struggle for civil rights. Patterson never thought about making history. The names of many who stepped forward are never celebrated, but their goal wasn’t notoriety. “I wasn’t out there for that reason,” he says. “My reason, totally, was to do what I could to make things better for black folks.”
The A&T students and their supporters opened a door and walked through it to a new era.