CHARLOTTE — Four local organizations are teaming up to celebrate and explore two significant events in Charlotte’s history and the struggle for freedom for its citizens.
Levine Museum of the New South, Mecklenburg Ministries, The May 20th Society, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations, along with eight community partners, present a series of events to commemorate 238 years since the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (MecDec), and 50 years since the desegregation of Charlotte restaurants. The community is invited to share in the commemoration of these mileposts through these public events:
• 2:30 p.m. May 19, History Makers Panel Discussion, First United Presbyterian Church, 201 E. 7th St. Levine Museum presents a discussion among participants in Charlotte’s 1963 restaurant desegregation and noted historians as they share perspectives on the events. Protests organized by Dr. Reginald Hawkins spurred Mayor Stan Brookshire to accept a proposal by young restaurateur James “Slug” Claiborne: Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce and Community Relations office arranged for white and black leaders to quietly eat together, opening the restaurants to all – an important turning point in Charlotte rise as a leading New South city. Panelists include:
Reginald Hawkins Abdullah Salim Jr.: 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 launched the Black Student Movement at UNC Chapel Hill. He is an attorney based in Maryland.
Jack Claiborne: Covered Civil Rights in the 1960s, a long-time reporter and editorial writer for the Charlotte Observer. Author of Discovering North Carolina: A Tar Heel Reader and The Crown of the Queen City: A History of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Brother of “Slug” Claiborne.
Evan Faulkenbury: Author of a UNC-Charlotte MA thesis on Reginald Hawkins’ Civil Rights activities culminating in Hawkins’ pioneering 1968 run for Governor of North Carolina. Now completing his history Ph.D. dissertation at UNC Chapel Hill.
Willie Ratchford: Director of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations since 1994. Sharing perspectives on its early desegregation work in the 1960s – and on the challenges that Charlotte still faces today.
Monday, May 20
• 10:30 a.m., March from Johnson C. Smith University to county courthouse. Kicking off with brief remarks at Johnson C. Smith University, participants will then retrace the May 20, 1963, march led by Dr. Reginald Hawkins demanding desegregation, with a stop at Trade and Tryon for the annual Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence commemoration.
• 11: 30 a.m., Mecklenburg Declaration Annual Commemoration, The Square, uptown Charlotte. Declaration reading, cannons and revelry will mark the 238th anniversary of the signing of the MecDec. Joining together with the 1963 march participants.
• 12:45 p.m., Old Mecklenburg County Courthouse, 600 E. Trade St. May 20th Square participants and JCSU Marchers, led by Mayor Anthony Foxx, will march from the Square to the Old Mecklenburg County Courthouse to complete the commemoration of the 1963 march. Mayor Foxx will read an official proclamation followed by a reading of excerpts from Hawkins’ May 20, 1963, speech read by a group of Charlotteans who represent the culturally rich and diverse city of today.
• 7:30 p.m., The May 20th Society Presents Isabel Wilkerson, McGlohon Theater, Spirit Square. Cost: $12, available at www.carolinatix.org or 704-372-0023. The Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” draws on her extensive research on African-American life in the 20th century to deliver a special talk in conjunction with Charlotte’s 1963 history.
Many Charlotteans know May 20 as the anniversary of the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (MecDec), the 1775 document Captain James Jack delivered to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia that declared Mecklenburg County citizens free from British rule.
But 50 years ago — May 20, 1963 — Charlotte effectively desegregated when Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a black dentist, led a march from Johnson C. Smith University to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse 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.”
Charlotte’s response made national headlines when Chamber of Commerce members, led by Mayor Stan Brookshire, joined with black leaders to desegregate Charlotte’s restaurants.
These “eat-ins,” an idea suggested to Brookshire by restaurateur James “Slug” Claiborne, caught on, as black and white citizens paired up to patronize local eating establishments. Dr. John Cunningham, former Davidson College president and leader of what became Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Relations, organized the activities.