This is the time! The students at Johnson C. Smith were ready to move. I mean they were ready to go. Charles Jones, and all those and those early on. Students were mad. …They were ready to move.” - Dr. Reginald Hawkins, Charlotte Organizer

Although Charlotte, North Carolina was considered one of the more integrated cities in the South in 1960, restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, and many other public spaces were off limits to Black citizens. The protest actions aimed at segregation in Charlotte were mainly directed by student leaders from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), the only Historically Black College University in the city. 22-year old J. Charles Jones, vice president of the student council and a 1958 graduate of JCSU’s undergraduate program was one of these student leaders. In interviews, Jones recalled hearing the news about the Greensboro protests on his car radio while riding home to Charlotte. Charles had been an active student organizer, and he remembered his feeling of elation that the sit-ins might be the spark that Charlotte needed to fight for integration. When he arrived back at JCSU, Jones and several other students called a meeting in the school’s Biddle Hall auditorium to consider whether similar sit-in protests should be conducted in downtown Charlotte, which was only a mile away from the campus. Jones recounted telling the 680 students that “I don’t know about y’all, but tomorrow morning I’m gonna wash up and put on my best Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, a little extra sweetwater...and I’m gonna walk down Trade to the Square. I’m gonna sit at Woolworth’s. So, do what you want to or not?

On February 9, 1960, Jones and other student leaders like Clyde Williams, Harold Washington, and Heyward Davenport led a group of 228 JCSU classmates from the stone entry gates of the university to various lunch counters at Belk, Ivey’s, Sears Roebuck, F.W. Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, W.T. Grant, McClellan’s, and Liggett’s Drug Store and demanded to be served. None of the students were served, and the eight stores closed their lunch counters to the public in response to the mass requests. At Woolworth’s, the entire store was closed when the students remained seated at the darkened counter. The non-violent actions were not met with abuse towards the students, and the few that spoke to reporters resolved to return the next day. The students claimed their actions were not driven by hate or designed to bring economic damage to the stores, and expressed their willingness to negotiate with the merchants for equal service. The day after the first protest, according to the JCSU University Student, two bomb threats were made against the university and there would be several more over the course of the protests. The lunch counters remained closed as the sit-ins continued throughout the month into March.

Charlotte mayor James S. Smith established the bi-racial Friendly Relations Committee to work toward a resolution, and in return the students agreed to suspend the sit-ins from April 10 to June 22. When the date passed with no decision, the students resumed the protests and returned to the lunch counters, and for the first time, white protesters began to join in. Only three JCSU students were arrested during the first wave of protests, all for “assault” of white citizens, which they denied and paid fines for in court. Finally, on July 9, 1960, the city of Charlotte announced that seven of the eight downtown lunch counters would be desegregated. The headlines, the loss of business, and boycotts had finally taken their toll; with only a handful of arrests and no reported violence, determined JCSU students had scored the first major victory in the city for integration and equality. In a statement, the JCSU student leaders stated that “we are pleased to know that members of the community can again shop at the stores of their choice without concern and with clear consciences.” Both Charles Jones and his father J.T. Jones visited Liggett's lunch counter on the square downtown after desegregation.

The integration of the lunch counters was a notable victory for the student movement, but most public spaces in Charlotte remained segregated. Throughout 1961 and 1962, JCSU students and other protestors continued to make their presence felt by picketing restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, and others that refused to allow Black customers. Many of these were coordinated by Charles Jones and others in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which Jones and other sit-in leaders were the first founding members. On May 20, 1963, Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a JCSU graduate from the class of 1943, led the second consequential march from the university’s stone arches to agitate for integration. Dr. Hawkins had escorted future JCSU graduate Dorothy Counts, the 15-year old daughter of a JCSU professor, home from nearby Harding High School on February 4th, 1957 after she became the first African American student to attend the school. Hawkins helped to protect her from the virulent abuse of a crowd of white onlookers who hurled slurs, rocks, and sticks at the young woman. Dorothy’s courageous action made national headlines, and Charlotte business leaders who maintained that the city was more progressive than cities in the Deep South were appalled at the publicity.

Hawkins had been organizing JCSU students and others for protests and boycotts since the 1940s and had threatened a protest during an upcoming international trade show in Charlotte in April of 1963 to desegregate restaurants. Mayor Stan Brookshire negotiated with several upscale eateries to allow service to African Americans during the show and the protests were called off, but after it was over, the restaurants went back to their old policies and Hawkins decided to form a protest march. On May 20th, 1963, the anniversary of the Mecklenburg County Declaration of Independence from England in 1775, Hawkins led a group of 65 JCSU students from the university to the courthouse in downtown Charlotte to protest the continued segregation of public accommodations. It was the first organized student protest since August 1962, and it served notice that the city’s Black citizens were not satisfied with the gains that had been made. On May 23, Hawkins told the press that similar mass demonstrations would soon be launched at Charlotte businesses that refused service to African Americans. Mayor Brookshire urged the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce to act, and the next day they passed a unanimous resolution publicly urging businesses in the city to offer service to customers regardless of race. On May 29, prominent Black citizens and white business leaders ate lunch together in several of the city’s upscale restaurants in groups of two, making a simple but powerful gesture that proved to be the final action needed to quietly desegregate the city’s public spaces. By November 1963, Charlotte’s biracial Friendly Relations Committee reported that Charlotte was “completely integrated” as to lunch counters, public libraries, hospitals, schools, police force, hotels, motels, restaurants, Chamber of Commerce membership, and “most” theaters.

Thanks to the actions of people like Charles Jones, Reginald Hawkins, and countless other students and activists that went to Johnson C Smith University and other HBCUs, North Carolina is seen by many as the historical birthplace of the civil rights movement. This movement was different from past actions because instead of older Black ministers and other established community figures, it was led by young students who organized and sustained the movement. HBCUs were the backbone of that student movement, and Charlotte became the first major city in the state to bring down barriers of public segregation thanks to the efforts of JCSU’s student body.

Adapted from an essay submitted with historical marker application by Brandon Lunsford

Charles Jones. Image Courtesy of The University Student
JCSU Student, Frances Blake Demonstrates in-front of Ivey's. Image courtesy of The University Student









Image: Johnson C. Smith University  Stone Entry Gate entrance. Image courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission


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