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Life and Religion

Celebrating 50 years of desegregation in Charlotte
How black and whites came together to make history
Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

Charlotte civil rights activist Dr. Reginald Hawkins (foreground) and Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire helped usher in desegregation of the city's restaurants in 1963.

Looking around Charlotte, it’s hard to imagine that just 50 years ago, it was unheard of for black and white patrons to sit and dine together out in public.

“It is just amazing to walk down the street or sit in a restaurant pretty much anywhere in the city and see everybody’s eating there,” said historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South. “I’m 57, so I’m old enough to remember when the grown ups said that it would never happen. They said the world would end if it happened, but it didn’t.”

Charlotte was thrust into the national spotlight in May 1963 when Chamber of Commerce members, led by Mayor Stan Brookshire, voluntarily joined with African-American leaders to go two-by-two and desegregate the city’s restaurants.

A local dentist, Dr. Reginald Hawkins, triggered the action. A well-known civil rights activist, Hawkins was instrumental in the desegregation of Charlotte’s airport, the YMCA and Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center).

On May 20, 1963 he was on a mission to desegregate the city’s restaurants. Hawkins marched from Johnson C. Smith University to the old Mecklenburg County Courthouse on East Trade Street, where he declared: “We shall not be pacified with gradualism; we shall not be satisfied with tokenism. We want freedom, and we want it now.”

Although it had been nearly a decade since the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling and three years since the sit-in movements successfully desegregated lunch counters, upscale restaurants and hotels in the city remained segregated. And cities all over the South were facing massive resistance to the push for desegregation.

Just weeks before Hawkins’ march, Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor turned police dogs and fire hoses on young students who were peacefully protesting for Civil Rights.
“It was a ugly set of photographs and video that showed up on front pages and televisions around the world,” Hanchett said. “It made the South look awful, and Stan Brookshire said he didn’t want that to be Charlotte.”

Time for change

Brookshire began meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders. While some restaurant owners were open to the idea of desegregation, they expressed concerns about losing clientele. They worried that if they were first to embrace it, their patrons may take their business to establishments that remained segregated.

Then a young restaurateur by the name of James “Slug” Claiborne came up with an idea. Claiborne proposed that if all the restaurants were desegregated at the same time, business owners would not have to worry about their customers going elsewhere because everyone would be on the same page.

The plan was implemented with the help of the Community Relations Office, which is still around. From May 29–31, black and white business and civic leaders paired up and dined at restaurants all over the city.

“By the end of May 1963, Charlotte was on its way to really desegregating,” said Hanchett. “It made national headlines.”

Meanwhile, Congress was taking note of what was happening in Charlotte as it debated the passage of a civil rights bill.

“It made folks in Washington and elsewhere a little more confident that if they passed what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act that required desegregation, that it could happen decently, and it could happen successfully,” Hanchett said.

Hanchett describes the desegregation of restaurants in Charlotte as “a time when history gives us hope that we can work together and change the world.”

“I think people often get hardened, thinking that things can’t change or haven’t changed,” he said. “This is a really good example that you don’t have to wait for society to change. You can take matters into your own hands and make the world a better place.”

From sit-ins to eat-ins

Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, Charlotte Chamber and other partnering agencies and organizations are commemorating 50 years of desegregation in Charlotte restaurants with a series of events this month.

Events kicked off May 8 with a panel discussion hosted by the Charlotte Chamber at the Belk Action Center. The next Sit-ins to Eat-ins History Makers panel discussion will be held 2:30 p.m. on May 19 at First United Presbyterian Church, located at 201 E. 7th St.

Panelists include attorney Reginald Hawkins Abdullah Salim Jr., who marched alongside his father as a teen in 1963, experienced the bombing of his family’s home, became the first black youth to integrate Charlotte’s YMCA and helped launch the Black Student Movement at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Jack Claiborne, who covered civil rights in the 1960s for The Charlotte Observer; Evan Faulkenbury, author of a UNC-Charlotte master’s thesis on Hawkins’ civil rights activities; and Patricia A. Albritton, board chair of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Office are also on the panel.

In addition to panelists offering perspectives on the desegregation of Charlotte’s leading restaurants, the discussion will also include questions and remembrances from the audience.

Throughout the month of May, Mecklenburg Ministries is encouraging churches, temples, mosques and other faith organizations to draw upon the history of Charlotte’s desegregation in sermons and other communications.

Below is a list of other planned events around Charlotte to mark the anniversary. For more information, contact the Levine Museum of the New South at (704) 577-5103.


May 20, 10:30 a.m.
March from Johnson C. Smith University to County Courthouse - A re-enactment of the march held on May 20, 1963, led by Dr. Reginald Hawkins demanding desegregation.

May 20, 11:30 a.m.
Mecklenburg Declaration Commemoration - An Uptown celebration including cannons, reading of declaration and a celebration of Mecklenburg County’s 250th anniversary.

May 20, 7:30 p.m.
The May 20th Society eighth annual Speaker Series - Panel featuring Pulitzer Prize author Isabel Wilkerson, Warmth of Other Suns, who will connect her research on 20th century African American history with the Charlotte 1963 history. Lecture in McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square.

May 29
“Eat-in” event - Event will mark the historic desegregation, featuring some of today’s civic leaders. It will kick off two days in which Charlotteans are urged to invite someone of a different race to lunch. Coordinated by Mecklenburg Ministries based on “Friday Friends.”

May 30, 5:30–7:30 p.m.
“From Sit-ins to Eat-ins” Community Festival - Hosted by Mecklenburg Ministries’ “Friday Friends” at Levine Museum, music and munchies will set the mood on 1963. Participants in the 2013 Eat-in reflect on history, share lessons learned and suggest


Not Dr. Hawkins per say, the speakers. My correction.
Posted on May 20, 2013
A celebration really! Why would you all be celebrating being able to go over an play with Massa's children when we all should have played together in the beginning. And are we really better off by being able to play with Massa's children? Fact our history in what is now called The United States of America did not start with SLAVERY and Segregation. John Hanson the REAL FIRST "BLACK PRESIDENT" was not a SLAVE and did not come from SLAVERY" He was a Moor so was the six other presidents that followed. That's some of our true history here in America and Charlotte is included and if Dr.Hawkins don't touch on that then he's cheating the people of Charlotte out of the real HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN IN AMERICA. Peace
Posted on May 20, 2013

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