Beverly Gadsden Birch remembers a very different Charleston from the one she lives in today. It was a town where signs above water fountains and restroom doors read “Whites Only.” A town where no black clerks or cashiers or food servers could be seen except in a few black-owned businesses. A town where public beaches, swimming pools, and parks were off limits to Birch and her friends and family.
It was an ugly time to be an African American in the South. From Texas to Maryland, Southern states after Reconstruction passed the so-called Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black voters, segregate public education and public accommodations, and bar blacks from industrial and other high-wage jobs. In short the laws were created to relegate African Americans to second-class citizenship, to separate them from political and economic power, to deprive them of dignity and hope itself.
Birch experienced the indignities in small but humiliating ways. Downtown clothing and department stores would allow blacks to come in to browse and buy, but they were not allowed to try on any clothing, shoes, or hats. “It made you feel less than human,” says Birch, who today owns a heating and air conditioning company with her husband. “They wanted you to spend your money, but you could not even try on anything you wanted to buy. And they always followed us around in the store.”
This indignity extended to downtown movie theaters, which required blacks to enter through a side door and sit in the balcony above the white audience. The exceptions were the two black-owned theaters, the Place on Cannon Street and the Lincoln at King and Spring streets. Birch said these were the only theaters she would attend. She would not submit to sitting in the “colored” section.
For some, there was nothing to do with the painful absurdity except make a game of it. As a boy in the 1930s and ’40s, longtime civil rights activist and entrepreneur Bill Saunders lived on Johns Island with his family. On Saturdays, his parents would bring him into town when they came to sell live chickens and eggs at the City Market. There he was confronted with the “White” water fountain and the rarely cleaned single restroom for black men and women marked “Colored.” There was nothing he could do about the restroom, but he would sneak around and steal a sip of water from the “White” fountain while his young companions watched and squealed with glee.
After World War II, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began challenging Jim Crow laws in South Carolina. The federal court ended white’s-only primaries and outlawed segregation in public education. Meanwhile the University of South Carolina and Clemson College were peacefully desegregated in 1962.
Throughout these tests and conflicts, South Carolina’s white population fought back with everything they had — sometimes violently, more often with laws and ordinances and economic reprisals against leaders and activists. Jobs were lost, businesses and careers were ruined. Some people were forced to leave the state out of concern for their safety.
One of the most outspoken champions of the white resistance was South Carolina’s own Strom Thurmond. When white Southerners walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention to protest the party’s civil rights plank, they gathered in Birmingham, Ala. to form the Dixiecrat Party. They named then-Gov. Thurmond their presidential candidate. Surrounded by Confederate flags and cheering bigots, he declared, “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” In 1956, now U.S. Sen. Thurmond drafted the “Southern Manifesto,” urging white Southerners to “resist integration by any lawful means.” The next year he set a record, filibustering for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
In 1960 John F. Kennedy came to the White House. He was sympathetic to the growing Civil Rights Movement, but wary of the political risk of alienating the Democratic “solid South,” which he would need to win reelection in 1964. But after years of watching peaceful civil rights protesters being mauled and murdered by Southern police and Ku Klux Klansmen, Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, decided to call for a sweeping new Civil Rights Act. During a televised June 11, 1963 speech, he called on Congress to send him a bill “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments,” as well as “greater protection for the right to vote.”
“This is one country,” he told the nation. “It became one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you cannot have that right … I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.”
Four hours after Kennedy closed his address, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers was murdered in the driveway of his home by a sniper hiding across the road.
H.R. 7152, the first draft of the Civil Rights Bill, was introduced in the House of Representatives on June 21, the day of Medgar Evers’ funeral. It was not the bill the civil rights leaders had hoped for, but it was the most sweeping piece of civil rights legislation since 1875. Southern politicians wasted no time in savaging the new bill, including Thurmond, who called it “unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise, and beyond the realm of reason.”
Kennedy himself was killed by a sniper in Dallas six months later and his Civil Rights Bill was the most important of many pieces of unfinished business left on his desk. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, put to rest all fears and doubts about the future of the bill when he addressed Congress five days later: “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for a hundred years or more. It is time to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
On the bill’s way to President Johnson’s desk, the bloc of Southern congressional Democrats fought it every inch of the way, employing weeks of filibusters and every parliamentary contrivance at their disposal to delay and dismantle the bill. Thurmond even went so far as to wrestle Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas to the floor in a Senate hallway to keep him from entering a committee room and creating a quorum. On another occasion, he declared in debate, “Today, the Negro is almost a favored class of citizen in America.” In the end, Senate Republicans and Democrats put together 71 votes to cut off the Southern filibuster. The bill passed the Senate and quickly passed the House and Senate conference committee, in an act of bipartisanship inconceivable in today’s political climate.
Along the way, sections were added to the bill giving the Justice Department power to enforce desegregation in public education and outlawing discrimination in hiring. On the evening of July 2, 1964, President Johnson went on television from the East Room of the White House, with a host of civil rights leaders and some of the most powerful leaders of Congress arrayed behind him, to sign the H.R. 7152 into law. In his thick Texas twang, Johnson described the law he was about to sign: “It does say that those who are equal before God shall now be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in the hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
He added, “My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail. Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God, who is the Father of us all.”
Immediately after the passage of the act, blacks began testing compliance around Charleston and throughout the South.
Three black civil rights activists, including prominent leader Rev. B. J. Glover, entered the restaurant at the Hotel Fort Sumter on July 3. Restaurant manager Wesley W. Graves met the group at the door. He said, “Rev. Glover, I am refusing you service, not because you are colored. Rather, I do not feel you are a fit person to eat in our dining room.” He did not challenge Glover’s colleagues. The three men left and went to the Charleston Inn, where they were served without incident, the Evening News reported.
Elsewhere around the city that day, blacks were admitted without incident to two downtown movie theaters where they had been turned away and demonstrations had been held the previous summer. Well-dressed groups of blacks in small numbers tested compliance in downtown restaurants largely without incident over the next days. Mayor Palmer Gaillard told the Evening Post on July 5 that he expected all citizens to abide by all laws and asked local black leaders to a meeting to discuss compliance in the city. There was tension the evening of July 5, when black and white teenagers engaged in name-calling after the blacks were served at a Spring Street drive-in.
Across the South, blacks tested compliance, largely without incident. In cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, where racial tensions had boiled for years, blacks entered theaters and restaurants peacefully. However, they were refused service in several restaurants in Memphis, Tenn., Selma, Ala., and Valdosta, Ga. A notable exception to the peaceful compliance was in Atlanta, where restaurateur Lester Maddox confronted blacks trying to enter his business on July 3 with a pistol in his hand and a white mob wielding ax handles standing behind him. “I’ll use ax handles. I’ll use guns, my fists, my customers — this property belongs to me,” Maddox told the local press. He was rewarded two years later when white Georgians elected him governor.
After the excitement and celebration in the White House on July 2, a strangely somber Lyndon Johnson told his press secretary Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
He was right, of course. Thurmond became the first major Southern politician to bolt to the Republican Party a few weeks after LBJ signed his greatest piece of legislation. Over the next quarter century, Thurmond was followed by most white Southern politicians and white Southern voters. Today, the South is bound to the GOP almost as tightly as it once was to the Democratic Party.
Half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Beverly Birch and Bill Saunders acknowledge that it has done much good, but also say that much remains to be done. Saunders was particularly bitter about the lack of economic opportunity afforded blacks in modern America. He points to the long and bitter hospital strike at the Medical College of South Carolina in 1969 as evidence of what the Civil Rights Act failed to accomplish, and the battles blacks still must wage for economic justice.
On the surface, the Civil Rights Act has certainly transformed American life. Blacks and whites are more integrated in work and education than ever before. Blacks vote in larger numbers and hold more political offices. They hold private and public sector jobs once reserved for whites. But these successes seem rather superficial compared to the deep and abiding problems that afflict the African-American community. Poverty lingers for generation after generation, visible in pockets as small as Charleston’s East Side and as vast as the City of Detroit.
The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much black households. Only about 15 percent of whites have zero or negative net worth, compared to more than a third for blacks. For most black families, there is no safety net. A lost job, divorce, or medical emergency can mean losing their homes, losing everything. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites is roughly today what it was in 1970.
In the June issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests it’s time we consider reparations: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of state-sanctioned red-lining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts or our ancestors, America will never be whole.” The technical questions involved in creating a comprehensive system of reparations would be complex and daunting. But that should not stop us asking.
To those who say there is no debt or that the statute of limitations has passed or that their ancestors came to this country after slavery, Coates has an apt reply, very appropriate to the week of Independence Day: “The last slaveholder has been dead for a long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism a la carte.”
In the coming days, there will be much flag-waving and fireworks, much talk of faith and freedom, pride and patriotism. But if this country was conceived in liberty, it was also conceived in slavery. To ignore that fact is not only dishonest, it robs us of the opportunity to heal this country, to make it whole. The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is a good time to think about that. So is the Fourth of July.