African American citizens campaign for integration in Durham, N.C., 1963

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The protests occurred from May 18-21 but were suspended until the city reached an agreement with the businesses to integrate in July, after which time the protests were officially called off
18 May
1963
to
21 May
1963
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Durham, North Carolina
Goals: 
The long-term objective was to desegregate the town of Durham, beginning with the integration of eating establishments and public facilities, standardizing fair hiring practices, and integrating schools.
 

The mass demonstrations of 1963 in Durham were the culmination of a local black freedom movement that had slowly gained momentum over the preceding years. Durham had been the site of a thwarted sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957, limited desegregation of schools, and the long-standing lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960 (see “Durham students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”). Throughout the next few years, civil rights activists continued to attack segregation in theaters, schools, motels, and restaurants as well as demand increased employment opportunities for blacks. Such protests, however, were often spontaneous and not part of an overall organized plan. That all changed in the spring of 1963 when local activists organized three days of the largest mass protests in the city’s history.

The Durham protests targeted half a dozen eating establishments (including Howard Johnson’s) along with the courthouse and city hall to encourage the city to integrate. They coincided with both the May election of Durham’s new mayor Wense Grabarek, whom the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs had supported, and with the events in Birmingham that had drawn national attention after police brutally attacked peaceful protesters (see “African Americans campaign for equal accommodations, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 1963”).

The first Durham demonstration began on May 18 when several hundred student marchers set off from the North Carolina College (NCC, now North Carolina Central University) campus to the downtown business section of Durham. Demonstrators entered several stores and restaurants with segregated policies and demanded to be served. Police were called in and 130 protesters were arrested on the first night alone. Immediately afterwards, hundreds of people swarmed around the courthouse and jail to express their sympathy and solidarity with those arrested. Although the mayor-elect would not be officially sworn in until the following Monday, Grabarek was called to the jail where he met with the movement’s spokesperson, attorney Hugh Thompson, who asked for food and cigarettes for the jailed youth. The mayor-elect instructed the police chief to grant their request and the crowd dispersed.

The next day, about 2,000 protesters turned out for the largest black protest Durham had ever witnessed. It began as a rally at Saint Joseph’s church, where national civil rights leaders James Farmer from CORE and Roy Wilkins, the executive director of NAACP, addressed the crowd. The protesters then headed to Howard Johnson’s where hundreds of students began a sit-down in the restaurant parking lot and refused to move. Police soon began hauling the students away. By the time they were done, the jail and the courthouse literally overflowed with protesters. Over the course of the three days of protests, over 1,000 protesters were arrested.

On May 20 a group of students presented their demands to the city council, calling for the immediate desegregation of all public facilities, the integration of schools, and the adoption of nondiscriminatory hiring policies. The NAACP and CORE also issued a statement announcing thirty days of mass demonstrations unless their demands were met. Racial violence downtown was escalating, with white protesters pelting black demonstrators with apples whose cores had been replaced with broken glass, throwing firecrackers into the crowd, and leaving in their wake massive property damages. The Durham County Citizens Council (formed in 1963 to counteract the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs’ influence in politics) supported the often-violent clashes.

That week, seven hundred people, mostly Duke University employees, took out a full page ad in the local newspaper, the Durham Herald in which they pledged to support those merchants operating theaters, stores, hotels, motels, and restaurants who would adopt a policy of “equal treatment without regard to race.” Duke itself had integrated its graduate and professional schools in 1961 and its undergraduate colleges in 1962.

The mass action panicked city leaders. Despite several years of sit-ins, boycotts, and demonstrations, Durham had never witnessed such widespread and continuous protest activity. Local businessmen worried about financial loss as shoppers avoided downtown during the protests and, at a moral level, the clear demonstration that large numbers of African-Americans actually wanted desegregation forced the city to address the issue. Unlike most white officials, Mayor Grabarek chose to meet with youth leaders from all the protest groups rather than dealing exclusively with the “established” adult black male leadership.

On May 21, Mayor Grabarek went directly to meet with the protesters as they gathered at Saint Joseph’s Church. He spoke on the power of their demonstrations to inform the community of their deeply felt grievances, the danger of racial tension and division, and promised to take positive steps to respond to their complaints. He asked for their support and understanding during this time. Many blacks were impressed by the unprecedented appearance of a white Durham mayor at the African American church, his tone, and his words. They accepted his sincerity and promised to halt demonstrations to give the mayor time to act on his promises. At the end of his speech, the protesters gave the mayor a standing ovation and one of the student leaders, John Edwards, even accepted a ride home from the mayor that evening.

The next day, the mayor announced the formation of the eleven-member Durham Interim Committee (DIC), to resolve and reconcile racial differences by trying to find mutual agreement and voluntary acceptance on both sides. The Committee included two African-Americans, Asa Spaulding and John Wheeler, Watts Carr (Grabarek’s opponent in the recent mayoral race), bankers Watts Hill and Watts Hill Jr., James Hawkings, and Harvey Rape (a cafeteria owner who during the protests had sat at the entrance to his establishment with a shotgun resting on his knees promising to shoot any black man that walked into the cafeteria). Any DIC decisions had to be cleared with the protest movement, represented by an eleven-member negotiating committee co-chaired by Floyd McKissick and NCC student leader Joyce Ware. The protesters agreed to call off any further demonstrations while the DIC met, but both sides understood that demonstrations would resume if substantive results were not forthcoming.

On May 28, the Industrial Education Center announced it would enroll qualified blacks in retail distribution and marketing training. Many other retailers said they would hire solely on the qualifications of applicants (not their race) and realizing how few blacks had had the opportunity to become qualified, agreed to work with the IED to develop a training program. Six Durham banks, three large insurance companies, industries working on federal contracts, and Duke University also agreed to adopt fair hiring practices to conform to federal law. The pace of school integration also increased that summer as a federal court ordered Durham city schools to adopt a freedom-of-choice desegregation plan.

By July, the DIC had negotiated an agreement with the city. Although Durham did not officially repeal its 1947 ordinance mandating segregation in public eating-places until the fall, 90% of restaurants, all eleven motels, the swimming pools, libraries, and Chamber of Commerce had all “voluntarily” agreed to desegregate. The high level of compliance among restaurants was due in part to the influence of Harvey Rape who served as a liaison to local proprietors. Although he had initially refused to join the DIC, Rape telephoned the mayor late one evening in tears, explaining that he’d experienced a religious transformation and decided that segregation was a sin and asked to be reappointed. Banker Watts Carr also reportedly applied economic pressure to comply with integration by threatening to call in loans on several local businesses if they refused to support the settlement. However, much of this pressuring was done “behind-the-scenes” in order for the business owners to maintain the illusion that they had acted voluntarily to preserve the city’s peace and reputation.

After the DIC meetings, Mayor Grabarek set up a permanent 15-member biracial committee on community relations, headed by Watts Hill Jr., to hear and solve further controversies as they arose and to advise the mayor when further action was needed. In the fall, the City Council adopted a statement saying that discrimination because of race, color, creed, or national origin was contrary to constitutional principles and policies of the US, the city, and the county.

Participants of the protest pointed out that two months after the demonstrations, inequalities still remained in education, employment, and housing. Nevertheless, both demonstrators and businessmen commended the mayor and his interim committee for providing a setting (following the demonstration) in which the operators of public accommodations jointly and voluntarily agreed to desegregate.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The sit-ins were inspired by the previous Durham sit-ins at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957 and lunch counters in 1960 (see "Durham students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960"), as well as the more recent protests in Birmingham (see "African Americans campaign for equal accommodations, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 1963"). Gandhi’s Indian independence movement in India also inspired the methods of nonviolent action (1).

Sources: 
Anderson, Jean Bradley. Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina. Duke University Press, 1990.

Blumberg, Herbert H. “Accounting for a Nonviolent Mass Demonstration.” Sociological Inquiry Vol. 38 Issue 1. 43-50.

Greene, Christina. “The Durham Movement.” Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 88-95.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (29/07/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Meghan Auker Becker, 14/03/2010