Civil Rights and the West End

The Historic West End has long been the epicenter of major civil rights actions in Charlotte, as well as the home of several individuals who were important to the local movement. West End residents who have made a profound impact on the progress of racial justice in the city include civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers; Kelly Alexander, longtime head of the Charlotte branch of the NAACP and his brother Fred, the first African American to serve on Charlotte's City Council; Reginald Hawkins, who desegregated Charlotte’s Douglas Airport terminal and Charlotte Memorial Hospital; the Rev. J.A. DeLaine, who worked with the South Carolina NAACP to file one of the five cases argued under Brown vs. Board of Education; and Dorothy Counts Scoggins, who made national headlines in 1957 as the first black student to integrate Harding High School. 

Spurred to action by the brutal  murder of Emmett Till in 1955, four young black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College staged a series of nonviolent sit-ins at Greensboro department store Woolworth’s in February 1960 that led to the chain removing its policy of racial segregation. The Greensboro protests are acknowledged as the catalyst for the spread of the subsequent sit-in movement and the achievement of desegregated public places throughout the South; several statewide actions around North Carolina cities followed, usually driven by local college students from historically black institutions.

Inspired by the Greensboro Four, students from Johnson C. Smith University led by Charles Jones and others pressed for service at downtown Charlotte lunch counters in late February 1960 by staging similar sit-down strikes. Despite several calls that threatened to bomb the university if any of its students participated, there were no violent incidents as a result of the peaceful protests. Several of the downtown counters closed up when faced with black customers, but the actions and the press coverage continued until they wore down white merchants.

Even after this victory, the so-called” tablecloth restaurants” remained all-white, as did the city's major hotels. Reginald Hawkins organized a march for May 20th 1963, and led dozens of protesters on a four-mile march down West Trade Street from JCSU to the center of the city to call for their integration.  The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce approved a resolution that all businesses serving the general public be open to people of all races, creeds and colors, but local white restaurant operators were concerned that serving African-Americans might drive away white customers. The protestors and the Chamber organized a plan whereby every member invited a black counterpart to lunch across the city, and it worked.  In a simple but powerful gesture, white officials and civil rights leaders worked together to peacefully open the door to integration.

The organized lunch on May 29, 1963 was a turning point in Charlotte's emergence as a leading New South city, as it contrasted sharply with the massive resistance seen in other places like Birmingham where the police chief turned fire hoses and police dogs on young civil rights protesters that same month. Martin Luther King spoke glowingly of the city’s achievements to 5,000 people at JCSU’s gymnasium on Sep. 21, 1966 on the eve of the school’s 100th anniversary, and often corresponded with local West End leaders Hawkins and Kelly Alexander. Black nationalist leader Malcolm X also spoke at JCSU in the Biddle Hall auditorium, and afterwards at the Hi-Fi Country Club at 2700 Estelle Street in Washington Heights on Jan. 30, 1963.

The West End and Johnson C. Smith University still serve as a fulcrum for protests over unfair treatment of African Americans, which often takes the modern form of protest of police abuse; in 2014 Smith students blocked an intersection on Beatties Ford Road to protest the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and in 2016 many Smith students and West End residents participated in actions surrounding the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police.


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