Instrumental North Carolinians in the Civil Rights Struggle

by Anna Brown

Civil rights have been a major issue in the United States of America for a vast number of years, creating many issues and disagreements in all states. North Carolina, however, being a very populous southern state, has had excessive civil rights issues of its own. There were many monumental events that occurred around the time of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as many instrumental people that dedicated their lives and energies to the cause of civil rights and creating equal opportunities for all people.

The Civil Rights movement began long before the 1960s, in the civil war period (“Civil Rights Movement”). But one of the biggest feats in the battle for civil rights was the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which sought to get rid of discrimination in all public places, including restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres that were privately owned and operated. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which had previously been enacted by the United States government, stated that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (“The Civil Rights Act of 1964”). However, the passage of this amendment did not stop or truly even slow down discrimination, especially racial discrimination, in the southern states. Throughout the south there were many laws restricting whites and blacks from using the same facilities; these laws were popularly known as the Jim Crow Laws (“Civil Rights Movement”).

Many people in all areas of the country, but especially in the southern states, opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because such a law would represent a dramatic expansion of federal authority (“The Civil Rights Act of 1964”).  Previously, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education had officially outlawed segregated schools, but the court was having an extremely difficult time enforcing this decision. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped enforce desegregation. Frank Brown writes that the “1964 Civil Rights Act, the most important remedy for implementing Brown, granted the U.S. Attorney General the power and authority to bring suits on behalf of Black plaintiffs in thousands of school districts operating racially segregated public elementary and secondary schools” (2). Despite resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress eventually passed it into law, affecting the whole country. In North Carolina, though, we can thank several people who helped bring about the successes of the civil rights movement.

Many North Carolinians are unaware of the heroes in our own backyard who devoted their lives to the civil rights movement. Some of these individuals include Representative George White, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Julius Chambers (Zogry). These people had drastically different ways of furthering civil rights, promoted the movement in varying degrees, and lived in different places and during different time periods in North Carolina history. But in the end all of their efforts helped contribute to a decrease in discrimination and to the promotion of civil rights.

George Henry White represented the second district of North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1897 to 1901; he was born and raised in North Carolina by a working-class farmer father and a mother who had been a slave. Rep. George White was the only African American in the 55th Congress, and during his time there he chose to focus on defending the civil rights of his black constituents. When it came time for the reelection of Rep. George White many white supremacists criticized him and the ideals that he stood for. White famously said, “I am not the only negro who holds office. There are others.… The Democrats talk about the color line and the Negro holding office. I invite the issue.” White held office for a few more terms, yet eventually chose not to be a part of Congress anymore due to continuing setbacks in North Carolina. However, he predicted that African Americans would return to Congress and pleaded for respect and equality for black Americans (“George Henry White”).

Pauli Murray is another civil rights activist who, like Rep. George White, dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights decades before the “public years” of the civil rights movement.  Pauli Murray grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and in 1938 applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where she was denied admission  due to her race. From that moment on she became a force to be reckoned with in the civil rights movement. Murray became a long-time symbol for African American rights as well as for feminism; her many accomplishments include graduating from law school at the top of her class, studying and putting to use nonviolent techniques used by Gandhi, organizing and leading desegregation sit-ins, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate from Yale Law School, becoming the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the United States, and helping to found the National Organization for Women (Blagg). Pauli Murray was a woman who became an inspiration to all people, but most importantly a role model and a sign of hope to African American women, demonstrating how neither race, gender, nor the discriminatory actions of others should stop you from achieving your dreams.

Ella Jo Baker is a lesser-known advocate for civil rights who played a role in many of the largest, most influential organizations of the 1950s and 1960s, including the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker grew up in North Carolina and was inspired by her own grandmother, who had once been a slave and who shared numerous stories of life under slavery, inspiring Ella to make a difference. After the famous Greensboro sit-ins Ella left where she was working to assist new student activists because she viewed them as a resource and an asset to the movement. She organized a meeting at Shaw University with the students who participated in the sit-ins, and from that moment the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born.  Baker was extremely important to the SNCC: the group “made use of Baker’s extensive contacts with Black activists throughout the South” and Baker “consistently argu[ed] for organizing strategies that emphasized the nurturing of grass-roots leaders in areas where SNCC established projects” (Carson, Clayborne, and Hess). With Ella Baker’s guidance, the SNCC became one of the most important organizations advocating for human rights not only in North Carolina, but across the whole country; the group strove for voting rights and equality for all people. Baker summed up many of her goals as a civil rights activist when she said that “[t]he major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…” (“Who was Ella Baker?”).

One last, very important figure in the cause of civil rights in North Carolina, who just died in August 2013 and who had continued to defend civil rights up until his last years, was Julius L. Chambers. Julius Chambers was a lawyer who attended both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school, where he was first in his class, and Columbia University law school. Julius Chambers founded a law firm in Charlotte which became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina. The firm that Chambers belonged to would do more for the cause of civil rights than any other law firm in the country. Chambers’s firm won many landmark civil rights cases in the United States, such as Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, dealing with school busing, and Griggs v. Duke Power Co, which was a monumental employment discrimination case. Chambers eventually left the law firm and went on to become a director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, where he formed the first line of defense against political attacks on civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs. Later in his life, he returned to North Carolina and became the chancellor of several different colleges while running an active civil rights law practice. His private law practice to this day continues to fight important cases relating to employment discrimination, education, and civil rights (“Julius L. Chambers”). Even today, when many people think civil rights are not an issue anymore, people like Julius Chambers continue to work to make a difference in the lives of many people, serving to gain true equality for all people of different social classes and races.

All of these people had very different beginnings. They came from a plethora of backgrounds, lived during different time periods, and yet they all made an extreme difference with their lives; they lived and served to eliminate the discrimination and inequality of the world, especially here in North Carolina. Many times it is easy for this generation to forget about civil rights and how discrimination affects everyone. Julius L. Chambers and Ella Baker both had connections to civil rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I am a student; this demonstrates to me how different times now are due to the efforts of these people and many others. Ella Baker was once denied acceptance to UNC Chapel Hill due to her race, yet now a huge goal of the University is to promote integration and to have a very diverse community and student body with students from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many people living in North Carolina now take for granted the accomplishments of these wonderful people and could serve to thank one or all of these people for helping to give them civil rights and create fairness in the state.  The goals of these people and their accomplishments do not go unnoticed nor will they ever be forgotten; without them North Carolina would be a very different place to live.

These words displayed in a museum sum up the civil rights situation in North Carolina and the United States: “The defeat of the separate-but-equal legal doctrine undercut one of the major pillars of white supremacy in America. In the decades that followed, a heroic ongoing campaign for civil rights has lifted the nation closer to its ideals of freedom” (Freedom Struggle).  Yes, there has been much headway made in civil rights due to the efforts of many people, several of whom are discussed in this paper, yet our nation has still not fully achieved equality for all. Hopefully one day the dreams that George White, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Julius Chambers possessed will become a reality in society.

George Henry White (1852-1918)

george white

Ella Baker (1903-1986)


Julius L. Chambers (1936-2013)

julius chambers

Works Cited:

Blagg, Deborah. “Pauli Murray: A One-Woman Civil Rights Movement.” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Harvard University, 2013. Web. 18 November 2013.

Brown, Frank. “The First Serious Implementation of Brown: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and Beyond.” The Journal of Negro Education 73.3 (Summer 2004): 182-190. Web. 18 November 2013.

Carson, Clayborne and Heidi Hess. “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Carlson Publishing, 1993. Web. 18 November 2013.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” learnnc. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, n.d. Web. 16 November 2013.

“Civil Rights Movement.” northcarolinahistory. North Carolina History Project, 2013. Web. 17 November 2013.

“Freedom Struggle.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, n.d. Web. 18 November 2013.

“George Henry White.” learnnc. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, n.d. Web. 17 November 2013.

“Julius L. Chambers-Civil Rights Leader and Center for Civil Rights Director.” UNC School of Law, n.d. Web. 18 November 2013.

“Who Was Ella Baker?” ellabakercenter. Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, n.d. Web. 18 November 2013.

Zogry, Kenneth. “North Carolina’s Long Civil Rights Movement.” nchumanities. North Carolina Humanities Council, n.d. Web. 17 November 2013.

Photo Citations:

Photograph. Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, n.d. Web. 1   Dec. 2013.

Steve McCaw. Photograph. Fox 8 WGHP The Piedmont News Station,
2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Photograph. History, Art, and Archives United States House of
Representatives, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

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