Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson was back in North Carolina this week for the NAACP convention. He was student body president at North Carolina A & T, graduating in 1964. Jackson reflected on his time in North Carolina, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, in a conversation with News & Observer editor John Drescher. According to a post on Drescher’s Facebook page, Jackson said that North Carolina avoided the worst of the era because of Terry Sanford. “His leadership was the difference. We had a governor who was navigating through the storm as opposed to feeding the storm.”
While Jackson’s right that our political leadership and business community throughout the 1960s helped us get through the turmoil of the era without high profile events like the murders of civil rights workers or the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four little girls, we did not escape unscathed. Acts of violence and intimidation marred the integration of our schools. Bombings were particularly prevalent during the period.
In Anson County, where my kindergarten cohort would become the first to go from K-12 in integrated classrooms, the lead up to integration was anything but calm. Segregation didn’t end until 14 years after Brown v. Board of Education and the county tried various ways to avoid compliance. Hostile whites threatened and intimidated black families and white elected officials who wanted to end segregation.
In the mid-1960s, Anson County, as it is today, was evenly divided between African-Americans and whites. There were three school systems, Wadesboro, Morven and Anson County. Each maintained two sets of schools segregated by race.
Following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, students and their families could choose which school to attend. At first, a small number of African-American students went to the white schools. In 1966, a larger contingent of black students planned to attend Morven schools.
September 12, 1966, the black families were sent a clear message. Bombs exploded outside of three households, destroying cars and blowing the windows out of houses. More bombings followed and none of the black children finished the year at the white Morven schools.
By 1967, the school board began integration of the schools by starting with the upper grades, sending all 11th and 12th grade students to a single, consolidated high school. On June 29, five bombs exploded simultaneously, damaging or destroying property owned by four school board members and the superintendent of schools. In the wake of the explosions, three members of the school board resigned.
Even though nobody was ever held responsible for any of the bombings, the Anson County schools were fully integrated in 1968 following a lawsuit by the NAACP. A group of five year olds began a journey through 13 years of integrated public schools for the first time in Anson County history. We were too young to understand the controversy that surrounded our circumstances and that worked to our advantage. While we may have all been aware of prejudices just below the surface, we had little real racial strife.
Jackson’s right that the leadership in North Carolina guided the state through the tempestuous times without the negative publicity and more extreme violence that rocked other states. But events similar to the ones that played out in Anson County occurred in counties across the state. The forces of progress eventually defeated those of reaction and we’re a better state for it. Let’s hope those same forces prevail again.