African American Civil Rights in North Carolina

African Americans’ fight for civil rights in North Carolina developed locally and later became part of the national struggle for equality.

During Reconstruction and through the end of the nineteenth century, African American men were elected to numerous North Carolina offices. Four were elected to the United States House of Representatives. George H. White was the last African American to serve in the House of Representatives (1898–1901) in this period.

White Democrats gained control of the North Carolina General Assembly in 1872, putting an end to the progress African Americans had been making in the state. In 1875 a state constitutional amendment established separate schools for black and white children.

Racial violence was a political tool. During the 1898 Wilmington race riot, armed white men burned black businesses and forced a number of African American leaders out of the city.

In 1900, North Carolina, like other southern states, passed a suffrage amendment to the state constitution that prevented most African Americans from voting.

The “Jim Crow” era began in 1896 with the separate-but-equal case. North Carolina set up a system of segregated education. African Americans, many of whom were poor, understood that a better life was built on a foundation of better education.

Many civil rights leaders used a tactic called nonviolent civil disobedience to work for change. For example, in the 1930s African American ministers boycotted a ceremony to dedicate the War Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, because they were forced to sit in the balcony at the ceremony.

In 1947 CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) sponsored the Journey of Reconciliation, an interracial bus trip designed to test compliance with Morgan v. Virginia, a 1946 United States Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated interstate bus travel. Teams of blacks and whites traveled on buses through the South, stopping in Durham and Chapel Hill, where they were met with violence. They were arrested in Asheville and Durham. The Journey of Reconciliation was the forerunner of the Freedom Rides of 1961.

After the United States Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Greensboro school system became the first in the state to comply with the Brown decision. In response, in 1956 the General Assembly passed the Pearsall Plan, which allowed parents to use state funds to pay tuition for private schools to avoid integrated schools.

African Americans and their supporters continued to push for desegregation of public schools. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a federal court ruled that busing could be used as a tool to help integrate the public schools. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1971.

On February 1, 1960, four African American freshmen from North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro led a sit-in at a downtown Woolworth store that denied them lunch-counter service. Sit-ins quickly spread to major cities across North Carolina.

The struggle for civil rights in North Carolina included individuals, church and civic groups, community leaders, and others. They did not always agree on which issues were most important or on the methods to use to achieve their goals. But their actions brought about civil rights legislation that led to the integration of public facilities in the state.

The removal of legal restrictions in housing and the access of some African Americans to higher-paying jobs have changed the makeup of many traditionally African American inner-city communities. The African Americans who could afford to leave did so. The poor residents who remain do not have important role models who could raise expectations among the young. Although the Civil Rights movement accomplished much, a great deal remains unfinished.

Source: African American Civil Rights in North Carolina
By Dr. Flora Bryant Brown, Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian. Spring 2008. Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History; via NCpedia.org

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