Accessibility Navigation:

Kelly Alexander Jr. Interview

Interviewee: 
Alexander, Jr. Kelly
Interviewer: 
Desmerias, Melinda
Date of Interview: 
2001-05-01
Identifier: 
OHAL0004
Subjects: 
busing, desegregation, segregation, NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, civil rights
Abstract: 
Mr. Alexander is the son of local, state, and national NAACP leader and local businessman Kelly M. Alexander, Sr. and Margaret Alexander. Like his brother, Alfred Alexander, he has been active on the civil rights scene in Charlotte for most of his life. He served as president of the local NAACP in 1986. During the interview, Mr. Alexander discusses his work on the local level with NAACP Youth Councils, local businessmen, and incidents he felt shaped the outcomes of desegregation in Charlotte, namely the bombing of his home along with those of other civil rights leaders.
Collection: 
NAACP Leadership
Interview Audio: 
Transcript:
MD (Melinda H. Desmarais): This is Melinda Desmarais, the interviewer. Today is May 1, 2001, and I am here with Kelly M. Alexander, Jr., at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am conducting this interview for the Digital Sound Archive Initiative for the special collections department at UNC Charlotte's Atkins Library. Mr. Alexander please state your full name.
KA (Kelly M. Alexander, Jr.): Kelly Miller Alexander, Jr.
MD: And what was your date of birth?
KA: October the 17, 1948.
MD: And were you born here in Charlotte?
KA: Yeah, Good Samaritan Hospital.
MD: And tell me your parent's names.
KA: Oh, my father is Kelly M. Alexander Sr. My mother is Margaret G. A. Alexander.
MD: And were they natives of Charlotte?
KA: As far as I know. That's what they told me.
MD: And where did you grow up here in Charlotte?
KA: In the old Brooklyn community, there primarily, up until the redevelopment. And then the family moved to University Park neighborhood, which was at that time on the periphery of Charlotte. I-85 was pretty much a brand new highway. You could bowl on it the traffic was so light, and the subdivision here was still unfinished. Everything from the corner all the way down to the service road was either under construction or still partially wooded.
MD: So when you were in the Brooklyn community how old were you when you were living there?
KA: You know, I really don't remember how old I was when we moved. Let's see. I was attending York Road Jr. High School, at the time, and so it was probably up through the ninth grade. Whatever those ages were, I just don't recall.
MD: What do you remember about that community?
KA: Brooklyn?
MD: Umhum. Describe it for me.
KA: Well, you know as a kid you don't really see much but your own square block, and it was a community of single family homes that rang the block all the way around on the outside, of course. There was a alley called Andrill Terrace that cut through the block. On one corner of it across from Friendship Missionary Baptist Church was a small commercial center, doctors' offices. Right at the corner there, there was a service station; it was owned for a very long time by a guy named Bishop Dale, who was a local magistrate and political leader. On the other corner, on the Stonewall Street corner, there was a store. Gholston's were the people that operated it. Then there was on the other corner, there was a church. Well actually the church was kind of across the corner, but that was the, the church was the most prominent feature, you know, there anchoring that particular corner. And along the back side of the block were essentially residences.
MD: How would you classify the community, was it a tight knit community? Was it? Did you play a lot with your neighbors, did you all worship at the same church or?
KA: No people went to, attended different churches. I mean Charlotte has always been a community where you can find a church every 20 or 30 feet. And it was that way then, so you know people went to whatever the church of their choice happened to be. I would say it was fairly, you know, easy going community. I mean, you know, I played with all the kids there in the block. But you had people of different ages, different educations, different classes, different. I mean it was, it was, truly, a, a mixed block in terms lifestyles. I think the thing I remember most about the people in the block especially since, as I progressed through life, you know, I run into folk who used to live there was a sense of regardless of where you started out that, if family wanted you to do the best you can with what you had, you know. To get as much education as you could to secure a position that would generate for you those things that you needed to sustain yourself and your family. And for most of the people that, you know, I run into, that seems to have happened. Again, you know, folks are in different stations of life, some are very successful, and some are your average middle class or working class-type individuals, but they all seemed to be focused and happy. And I think that's the most important thing about anybody.
MD: I know that you have been involved in civil rights activities locally and state-wide and nationally for most of your life, so before I ask you some specific questions about Charlotte and, you know, events, and your involvements in those, can you think about and tell me or if you want to come back to the question at the end of the interview we can, it's up to you. But tell me what has been the most pivotal event that you have been involved with or activity that you've been involved with that you think shaped Charlotte's history or progress in civil rights the most.
KA: I think a couple of things. One was when several civil rights homes were bombed, all on the same evening. The reaction of the community, it has had, that reaction has had a very profound effect on my outlook. It illustrated to me that people could be, could disagree often over very fundamental things. But yet that there were certain things that the community as a whole wouldn't tolerate and did not find to be acceptable. And that's a lesson about Charlotte that I've, I really never forgotten, because I've seen that same kind of community spirit played out over and over again in everything, you know, some things very mundane. Whether or not we're going to spend the money on sports complexes or cultural complexes as opposed to you know doing something else. A debate on whether or not a courthouse ought to be on one block or another. Debates about whether or not, bussing to achieve desegregation should be continued. Whether or not this unitary school system. I mean all of these kinds of things are in my mind an extension of a dialog that this community seems to always have had about its goals, its directions, the means and methods, but a very civil dialog. And so I guess if I had characterize something about Charlotte that sets it apart from, you know, some other places-Dayton, Ohio for instance-it's the civility of the dialog, and the fact that it's a constant dialog. Things are settled here but they are settled slowly. They are settled through discussion. Discussion builds a consensus. Those who don't like the consensus are free to continue the dialog and try to convince people. But what you notice about Charlotte is that as this dialog goes on the floor rises. That which was considered to be an unacceptable ceiling, 40, 50 years ago, has become the floor below which you don't want the community to sink. Some years ago, I ran into a guy. I was out at a restaurant somewhere. He walked into me and he said that I didn't know him, and indeed I didn't. An older fellow. And he told me he had known my father. And he started talking, and essentially he said, you know, I didn't always agree with him, but I respected what he was trying to do. And, you know, he talked about how he'd gone from being viewed as a radical in the community at one point to being the pillar of community consensus and conservatism in some folks' minds at another point. And again that, too, is indicative of the way this community has grown.
MD: And how did that bombing, specifically the bombing of your house and three other houses here in Charlotte on the same night, right? How did that specifically kind of teach you the lesson? What happened around that specific instance that sort of taught you this lesson that you have learned about Charlotte, your perceptions of Charlotte?
KA: Well, for one thing we got, I don't know how may phone calls from people that just wanted to talk and lend support, and since I was here, oftentimes I was answering the phone.
MD: Now were these white and black citizens of Charlotte or people you knew or?
KA: Well you know, my stock answer to that is I have yet to figure out somebody's race over the telephone without a visual aid, you know. And I had an interesting case one time in which I saved somebody's job by proving exactly that you can't do that, but that's an aside. Using the traditional methods of trying to figure this out, I would figure there were some of both. Some of the people who called identified organizations that they were with, you know, some of which were that time were either exclusively or, you know, just predominantly white. Some folks you knew. Some names you may have come across in the newspaper before, so it was a mixed crowd of people. And, but again the important thing wasn't so much somebody's race but it was the fact that they said, "Look, this shouldn't have happened here, you know, regardless of whether or not I agree with you, with what your father's doing or disagree with what your father is doing. This is not the way we do business in Charlotte. The community rallied and helped to rebuild, you know, the homes and replace the damage. That was something that they didn't have to do and indeed in many other places across the South where things happened, communities didn't come together to try to do anything about damage. There was a rally that was held, you know, here in the community, over at Oven's Auditorium. It was very well attended. And that was another attempt to publicly repudiate violence in the conduct of our local dialog about race and integration and, you know, political participation and all of that. And again, you know, I was here. I talked to people. I attended this stuff. You know, it's something that, it's a part of you.
MD: And do you think that that event was pivotal or made a difference in that way things eventually played out here? Do you think that one event in general, excuse me, specifically sort of crystallized anything or?
KA: It's hard to know specifically because, you know, I kind of speak from my own perspective as an observer, watching other people who at that point making decisions, and, you know. If anything I think that the reaction of the community fed into a willingness on the part of people like my father and the folk that he represented to be more willing to conciliate and negotiate as opposed to go into direct confrontations. Again, you know remember that the cutting edge method of changing things during this period was street demonstrations. Direct confrontations with oppressive political power. In this community the power was no less absolute, but the people were a whole lot smarter and, on both sides. You know I have to give credit to the people who were in charge, because they could have become intractable and created confrontations that would have been just as bad as things in Birmingham and Little Rock. They didn't. I was, I was researching something once and came across the statement made by John Belk when he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. This was before he became a politician, and he was not in favor of a whole lot of change, and he made it quite clear what his position was. He stopped a couple steps short of the George Wallace-type position. The funny thing about it is that his political hide was saved on one occasion by the support that my uncle gave him when he won a bid for reelection by, I think, 26 votes, most of which were created as coming from the black community.
MD: And this was Fred Alexander?
KA: Yeah, that as Fred Alexander. And the point is here that John had to change in order for him to be able to accept an open alliance. And campaign for those votes that he had been somewhat disdainful of only a few years before. You know, the communities, politicians did not change as rapidly. Some of them never changed. In this community you had people who were on side totally on Monday and by Friday understood which way the wind was blowing and got out a kite.
MD: And do you think that was pure political expediency on their part?
KA: Some of it was political expediency. I mean I'm not naive enough to believe that everybody is altruistic. Some people had I think a Damascus experience, they changed. Some people I think changed because they saw that what they believed wouldn't work was indeed working. It's an evolutionary process. What's happened here in Charlotte hasn't been revolutionary it has been evolutionary, you know. It is difficult, I think, if you could go out and find a person who was purely against racial accommodation and change in 1950 and find someone who has a similar position in 2001, the differences between what they think about folk of other races, the differences between what they were willing to do or not do to a espouse their positions, would be I think be fairly dramatic. On the one hand, the Charlotte of the 1950 was basically black and white. The Charlotte of 2001 is Asian, Latin, black, white, and a whole mixture of folks from Europe who dropped in the last jet. It's not the same community. But in a sense it is the same community, the dynamic that made it possible for a 1950's Charlotte, to conceive of itself by the end of that decade as a spearhead of the South is the same dynamic that permits a 2001 Charlotte to consider itself to be an international, cosmopolitan city.
MD: So that spirit is still driving?
KA: Yeah. Yeah. It's not a, it's a spirit made up of people, people who are willing to learn, to build upon what they have learned, to accommodate.
MD: So what, so you sort of would consider this a local story in terms of the people and the mix of people who sort of make this up and move this spirit along. You would consider it a Charlotte story, not necessarily pushed by the federal government or you know but you would consider it?
KA: Well, Charlotte, what happens here has not happened in isolation, obviously, because there was a great deal of pressure being applied across the South and because of the negative consequences of resistance, the leaders in Charlotte who I credit with having much more than average intelligence, saw what was going on and decided that that was not what they wanted to have happened in Charlotte. It just took one incident, at Harry P. Harding High School, there was a big crowd when they tried to integrate that school. And it made the national news and it made it at the time that Charlotte's Chamber was just gearing up the spearhead of the South campaign. It didn't look good. It was a negative black eye. That's all it took. The unconvinced rapidly became convinced. When it came time to deal with things like desegregation of public accommodations, the Charlotte approach was to officially do it. To ask everybody to, you know, kind of wait until, I think it was the mayor's Good Neighbor Committee was what it was called at that point, if they would take a, blacks and whites would go to lunch together or go to the theatre. And again my Uncle Fred was on the committee and he was involved in that process. I remember my brother and I, we've always liked movies and theatres, and there was something playing at the old Imperial Theatre downtown, which was located approximately where the First Citizens Bank building is now. The theatre wasn't officially integrated yet. But we decided we were going to go down and catch a matinee, you know, anyway, and see what would happen. You know we had that kind of mentality. So Al and I went down there and walked up to the ticket counter, got a ticket, breezed in just as easy, sat down watched a movie and left. Nobody said a word, nobody I mean. It was, hey, a couple of kids going to a movie.
MD: And you sat with everybody, not in a balcony or you sat...
KA: I was just, just like a regular movie. I mean there was no hubbub, no consternation on anybody's face. I don't even think that the ticket taker had even heard of the gradual public accommodation, desegregation thing. When I was much younger, I remember going into Belks basement, and I needed to use the bathroom. And so I just walked up to the first door that said men, walked into the bathroom and it turned out, this was the segregated white men's only bathroom. And of course that's, I always tell people, that's how I discovered that all men are created equal. [Laughter] And again, nobody said a word. There was no, you know, "Oh my God! Let's run for the hills!" I mean it was like, hey, kid's in there, got to use the bathroom, kid's leaving. You know just, Charlotte has been a place where because it was in the South, and because of the laws of the state and because of some of the beliefs held by some people, you know, it was in the segregational column. But it's always been a place where you could always find exceptions to that rule. It wasn't a hard line all over the place, and I think because you could find exceptions, because blacks and whites lived for many, many years in relatively close proximity to each other and interacted in all kinds of ways. Because of all of this it was a lot easier to go through a change process. I mean some years later when the Concerned Parents Association was very active and had a number of their members elected to the school board and were very vocal in opposition to desegregation. I remember they were having rallies all over the place, and that was the summer that I was working with a group of young people, and you know we would go down to the school board and we'd protest. We'd picketed a few times.
MD: Was this the NAACP Youth Councils?
KA: Yeah, it's one of the youth councils. We went out to West Mecklenburg High School one night when they were having a Concerned Parents' rally. And you have to understand it was Mecklenburg, it was a hotbed of conservatism to put it mildly and this auditorium, high school auditorium was packed in jammed. People were seated in the windowsills. There were so many people in there. I think they had a couple of police officers there to keep the crowd straight. Well, you know, we pulled up and waltzed up into the public meeting. I mean it was public meeting in a public place, and again we were treated with the utmost accommodation. We were able to get into the auditorium. There weren't any seats but you know, people made way so at least we could stand, and see the stage, and hear what was going on. Now common sense dictated that we weren't going to stay there for two or three hours, but we came, we saw, we made our point, and we left, without incident. Nothing happened to the car, nobody was spat upon, cursed, you know. I mean, people again regardless of their political stands and at time when tempers were running you know pretty high in a community, worked real hard to try to be fair and accommodating and promote a dialog. Or at least let a dialog take place. Now you know wether we were extremely lucky or extremely foolish. But again there were places in America where an attempt to do what we did, would have resulted in some form of violence.
MD: Do you think just speaking about violence and the community, obviously the bombing incident was an incident of violence, And I know that there were some incidences when the high schools did integrate. But overall would you characterize Charlotte as being a non-violent place during the civil rights push?
KA: Pretty much. Curtis Steele and I did a study, at the time that Charlotte was experiencing some of these problems in high schools, and one of the things we specifically looked at was the mass expulsions that principals were practicing, and in our investigation we did find that in the incident at West Mecklenburg High, for instance, that some students had met off campus at a popular drive-in and had actually plotted to disrupt the schools. And a lot of folks just got caught, you know, caught up in it. That was the exception as opposed to the rule. There was always a small number of people who wanted to disrupt. The vast majority of folk didn't; the vast majority of folk, excuse me, unfortunately would get caught up in something that somebody else may have started, and then there were the spontaneous occurrences.
MD: And you mean both white and black?
KA: Oh yeah, oh yeah. In the case we investigated it happened to have been you know white kids that did it. You had to know the dynamics of the situation. And you know by saying it was white kids, that doesn't mean I'm painting white kids as being insidious racist or something. I mean anybody white or black can disrupt the high school even to this very day. It is not that difficult to do. And in a highly charged situation, it becomes even easier, and some folk to advantage of that to disrupt. Other incidences that basically problems that kids have, always have had-and get into arguments, fistfights sometimes on campus. Because of the racially-charged nature of the atmosphere, were instantly seized upon and blown out of proportion, and we got through that. And that's you know, we got through that because not all of the adults out there wanted to bring cans of gasoline to a fire. Not all of the students wanted to do that. And there were some of us who were barely more than students ourselves, but were technically adults. You know spent time trying to create some bridges. I mean I was sitting right here in this house, it was on Sunday as I recall and, a knock on the door. And one of the police officers who had a kid out at West Meck first brought to my attention all these mass explosions. And this was a guy that we couldn't get to buy a NAACP membership or attend a meeting. And as soon as there was a problem involving his kid, he knew where to go who to talk to. And that's how we got involved in investigating whether or not mass expulsions were constitutional. Under those circumstances they weren't. There were violations of the school's own policy. I mean we've you know, you've talked about the schools. Tape 2, Side 1.
KA: When I was active with the local branch in a number of capacities, we always found things going on in the school, see, for a number of years that could have been blown out of proportion but were handled quietly. We found that in one high school, the kitchen staff, the cafeteria stands maintained segregated restrooms. And this was years after public accommodations had been desegregated and years after integration in the faculty and staffs of schools, but this school had maintained unnoticed and unmolested, a type of segregation. And we discovered it, because there had been some complaint; one of the ladies that was investigating happened to be a white women, and she was there in the cafeteria talking to somebody. And as luck would have it, she needed to go to the restroom. And she had seen the lady going off in that direction, and she started going that direction. And one of the cafeteria ladies said. "Honey, you going to the wrong restroom. That's the colored ladies' restroom." And she almost had an accident right there, when she heard that. But she then paid attention and was able to bring back a report, and we brought this to the attention of the people down at central administration, and we got it corrected. And this particular incident never made newspapers. Nobody every showed up in front of the school board made an issue out of it. It was handled completely quietly, and I think that was the appropriate way to dealing with it. I mean there have been other incidences. I can think of a bank. There was a bank here that was bought and is now a part of BB and T. BB and T I'm sure you are aware at this juncture and time is considered to be one of the countries' leading banks catering to small business. Has a stellar reputation. Well, way back when, this particular bank had a vice president I think it was, it was Bank of City National, had a vice president of the old school. This fellow didn't think that unmarried, single women should have benefits if they were going to have out-of-wedlock children. And he proceeded to make sure that a young lady that happened to have been black, but could have been white, he was non-discriminatory in that regard, got the wrong information about her benefits. And two or three other things that were going on, and he got caught at it. And we got involved.
MD:And you mean the NAACP?
KA: Yes, and started negotiating and Doris Harmony, who was at that time doing private consulting work, also got involved. And the upshot of all was that the young lady eventually got the benefits that she should have been entitled to and all the medical things were dealt with. But the most important issue that we ended up discussing and negotiating around involved female employees at the bank. At that particular time all the senior executives were male. Pretty much the most senior position a woman could get was like chief teller. Or you might have been doing something that should have give you another title and more money, but didn't. And we put all that on tape and they swore up and down that they were going to change their evil ways, and be good citizens. And they submitted to independent monitoring for I think it was three or four years. And every time I go into that bank, and I see what women are doing now, the I still have an account with the bank, and that's one of the reasons I think I got involved, because I banked there. My branch manager is a woman. Most of her senior staff female, I haven't seen a male teller once in that last two years in the place. I mean you know women are doing everything. The place is integrated. You can get blacks and whites cross-supervising each other. I mean it's, and most of these people have no idea what stated all of this. And what started it, at least, in that particular, you know, bank that is now part of a much larger structure was a private negotiation around some clear civil rights issues conducted away from the glare of the public spotlight. And that's kind of the way we have, that's how we can conceived progress. Now what was important was that there was progress. Not that you name go to put in the newspaper, you know, every week. What was important was that people got some benefits from what was going on. You know, not that you got a whole bunch of credit, and somebody wanted to erect a statute or name a street after you. You know, it was important that things changed, so that people were better off after your involvement than they were before your involvement. And it also meant that sometimes people will call up and want to use and NAACP or your expertise as a big stick to beat somebody without justice. You had to tell them, we're not going for that. That's that's not what we do. We don't think that what you have just told us, constitutes a civil rights problem or violation. And you know be able to tell people that not everything that is wrong, is reachable through civil rights laws. There are some things are wrong because your attitude is wrong, or the other guy's attitude is wrong. But there's no law that says you two got to love each other.
MD: Let me ask you, what decade was the bank situation in. Was that in the 70s or the 80s.
KA: Decade, huh?
MD: Yeah, that's close enough.
KA: Let's see, it wasn't in the 90s. When was I branch president?
MD: '82?
KA: In the early 80s? Probably it would be the late 70s, early 80s.
MD: Ok.
KA: Some where in that period.
MD: And so do you think that that willingness on the part of the African American leadership in Charlotte, whom I assumed, am I assuming correctly that most African American leadership in terms of civil rights was associated with the NAACP?
KA: Well, I think it would be correct to say that just about everybody started in the NAACP. And you've got folk like Dr. Hawkins, for instance, who started and he decided he was going to do his own thing. He created something called MOPA. You've got James Barnett, who's still around, marching. He runs a group called Stop the Killing.
MD: Umhum, oh yes. Umhum.
KA: He ran gospel concerts as fundraisers for the branch for a while, and then he decided to go out and do his own thing. So, you know, then you had people who simply had not wanted or liked any kind of structure and have done their own thing. So there's always a mixed bag here. The biggest debate has been between, the NAACP's fairly consistent emphasis on integration and emphasis on negotiation were possible as opposed to somebody else who says before you negotiate let's have a confrontation or situations in which folk have been preaching separatism. NAACP has been opposed to separatism. I mean I have personally been opposed to separatism.
MD: Were there more militant groups here in Charlotte in the 60s and 70s who you know I mean you hear about of course groups nationally but you know here in Charlotte?
KA: Yeah, the Panther Party chapter here. Ben Chavis was out of UNC- your school. Who else was in that Panther Party? It will come back to me. There are still a number of folks still floating around associated with the Panthers. They used to have a little house over near Johnson C. Smith. I don't know if it's State Street or on the side streets, but that was Panther headquarters locally. So yeah, they've always been more militant or nationalist groups. I mean after all you had down in Monroe, what's the guy's name-Williams? The guy that was accused of kidnapping these folk during a demonstration down there. And he fled to, Roger Williams, fled to Cuba, and you know so, this has not been an area where everybody was just placid and went along with a particular program. There has always been this back and forth as to what is the legitimate, the right way. I mean you look at the paper now you've got this guy (Filoki) denouncing the Black Political Caucus. You've got INCOBRA speaking out about reparations for slavery and this kind of thing. You had a conflict between when the Erickson stadium, the negotiation Erickson on stadium, and our participation in its construction, you had one group that felt that 20 percent was the appropriate thing, and ,you know, other folk felt that something else was going to be it. And one group that felt it, they ought to be the negotiators. You know things are never as calm as it may seem from a distance.
MD: And during that time, I guess one of the, what I'm really getting at is, I think that we people tend to see when they look back sort of a unified just a black community working towards civil rights. But you're saying they were factions and groups who had different ideas about?
KA: There never has been a black or white anything.
MD: Right.
KA: There's always been differences in opinion as to the appropriate strategy, and so I mean the black community is not homogenous, you know it's a heterogeneous community. It always been; it continues to be.
MD: And in terms of political organization then, during say the 60s and early 70s so there was sort of a, so there were other militant groups here in Charlotte, but did they have, they didn't have the power or the falling or the following, because you know we don't see like huge demonstration in Charlotte's history or blow ups like say in Detroit.
KA: What you have in Charlotte is a philosophical debate. In the early days it was a debate in which the accommodationist faced off against the integrationist. Your chief accommodationist has was Tross, who at that time controlled the Charlotte Post newspaper. The chief integrationists would have been my father and the people who were associated, you know, in NAACP. Then of course within the white community you had the liberal versus the conservatives. The more liberal members of the white community believed in integration, political empowerment for blacks, black representation on city council, and what not.
MD: Who were some of the people?
KA: You have got to remember that was before my time.
MD: Harry Golden?
KA: Harry Golden, is the most prominent name that comes to mind. There were several ladies, members of the NAACP, I remember meeting as a child, but their names escape me. And much of what I've just said comes from looking at early voting statistics where you know, you can see the number of votes that black candidates would consistently get. And that the tactic in those days was to get a, you get two black candidates running. One would be the more conservative guy, and then you look at the votes these people would get, and what would invariably happen is that white vote would split, so that those whites inclined to vote for anybody black, half of them or a good portion of them would go in the direction of the conservative black, and some of them would go into the direction of the more liberal black. And the net result is neither one of them going to get elected, and of course the black community likewise would split. What you tend to see is the more liberal guy getting the larger black vote. The more conservative black guy getting the larger white vote. Now when you look at all of those, both candidates in their entire votes, then you begin to get a sense of the willingness of the overall community you know to permit participation in politics. And of course this process went back and forth until about 1965 when Fred Alexander was able to first get the black community to agree that we were going to run one candidate. And he basically did it by bicycling around and talking to people, saying look, you know, I'm interested in running for council, however Mr. So- and-so, if you would like to run, I will support you. But if I run, I would like for you to support me, which forced this other guy, before he had made a whole lot of checking to make a decision, and you know, he, he did it with enough of the teams that normally may had been brought out, that when he announced, he had the consensus of the community, you know, behind him and therefore he had a shot because the white vote wasn't going to split anybody that was interested in voting for a black candidate had one to choose from. And he got in by the skin of his teeth, at the last slot on the ticket.
MD: And was the first African American man on the council?
KA: Since the turn of the century. Umhum.
MD: I remember reading about your parents, and I'm going back in time now. Your parents pushing for reassignment. One of the first things sort of after the Brown decision. First for you and then your brother. Do you remember anything about that personally?
KA: Well you got to remember, I'm a political scientist by training, a writer and an amateur historian so sometimes it's hard to separate what I personally remember from what I read.
MD: I understand that.
KA: And now I have, for a whole other reason, I recently reviewed newspaper accounts of that period so it fixed fairly firmly in my mind. And I remember some of the generalized conversation around, you know, my home. And I've got to tell you that the generalized memories combined with the newspaper accounts and what not kind of fixed a whole, you know, scenario. And the bottom line is that the Charlotte school board at that time, it was not consolidated, for a very interesting reason decided that my brother and I could not go to Dilworth Elementary. They ascertained that it was not our neighborhood school, which I found cute. Especially in this current debate about neighborhood schools. And not because of anything else, but because they pursued a neighborhood school assignment policy where we were unable to enter a said institution.
MD: And did that have an impact on you? I mean did you want to attend that school?
KA: At that time I was so young, that I was doing whatever, that was elementary school.
MD: Second, maybe second grade or?
KA: Ah no, it was higher then, but still it was elementary school. I mean you do what your parents tell you to do. You know, for posterity I guess I should tell some, pluperfect story about you know the great dawning of intellectualism and social consciousness. You know make some future researchers say, 'Wow! That guy really must have had together,' but I'd be lying. [Laughter]
MD: [Laughter] So your parents were spearheading that?
KA: Yeah.
MD: And you were--
KA: Following along in the vein.
MD: Following. Yeah. I hear you.
KA: Yeah, but you know, but again, years later as an adult and reviewing all of this, I ask myself the question, you know would I have, if I had been their shoes would I have done something different? The answer's no. I wouldn't have. I mean, they wanted the best education that their kids could get and my father's position was, I believe, was, that if he was advocating for the people's kids to do this, the least he could do was to advocate that his own children do it. So, I mean, I never disagreed with that decision.
MD: I know that you were very active, I mean obviously in the NAACP as an adult being very active in the national scene, in the local scene, statewide, but I know when you were younger you were a part of the Youth Council, you. Did you start the youth council here in Charlotte?
KA: Well there was junior youth council that was started and chartered through the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church that my mother was the advisor for. Again at that age, it's more parents pushing to pull things together, and kids went along with it.
MD: Now how old would you have been then?
KA: Well the rules say that junior youth councils click out at , I think, it's 12 or 13
MD: Ok
KA: So I must have been 7, 8 something like that. They, we used to have some pictures around here of the old junior youth council taken out in front of the church. Just a good group of kids. Most of them I mean, you know, they all attended the church. They were all pretty much interested in education, and the kinds of things that the junior youth council did, were the kinds of things that any youth group does. I mean it wasn't, you know, so much civil rights per se. I am there were....Because of what it was affiliated with, you got a liberal dose of the, that topic. You knew about those issues. But you know it taught like, things like parliamentary procedure. You know, so that you would know how to conduct yourself in a public forum. Encouraged your ability to learn how to run a meeting, develop an agenda, to speak with confidence in front of people. You know, the kinds of things that if you learn them, help you as you grow older and do other things. I mean it was, it was a basic training ground for young people. You know it could have been the Baptist Christian Union, you know, with the difference being in some of the projects, other than fundraising projects, you know, may have been to go canvas a neighborhood and see how many registered voters there were, how many unregistered you could convince to register, you know. Whereas the Christian union wouldn't be doing that.
MD: Right. More political focus.
KA: Umhum.
MD: Now, I know that I read that at one point members of the youth council actually went in front of the school board to talk about issues of school integration, and were you involved in that at all?
KA: What you talking about during the 70s?
MD: Umhum. During the 70s, during the Swann.
KA: Well let me back up and explain something about the structure. First there was one junior youth council that after the group that was in it pretty much got beyond those ages, it kind of disappeared. There was a youth council that was called the Metropolitan Youth Council at one point, and it had a couple of other names as time went on, that basically pulled from the entire community, but we also organized youth councils in the public schools. The first one was organized at East Mecklenburg. And we eventually had them in all of the schools.
MD: And was this in the 70s when you had those?
KA: Yeah, all of this process started in the 70s and was ongoing. I don't know if the newer schools-you know, Vance and places like that-have them. In fact I don't know if they're still maintaining the structure. But that was the kind of structure that we had. And the demonstrations that you are talking about, took place, you must be talking about the '68 to '69 period. They were basically in the spring/summer, you know, time frame. And by that point, I was acting as advisor to the high school chapters that kind of acted, the group that did the presentations, kind of was made up of folks from all of the chapters. West Charlotte High School contributed a number of leaders to it, as opposed to a youth council per se.
MD: Ok. And were they, they were, what sort of things were they talking or making these presentations. I mean what sort of things were they asking for, pushing for, trying to achieve?
KA: Oh, I remember a slogan: "People, people have you heard? Busing, busing is the word. Am I right or wrong?" Then they would come up with "Whites can be bused just like us." We did a lot of highly choreographed stuff. I mean we go in to the school board chamber and line up across the front row and get there, I don't know, 30, 40 minutes before the board officially came out, and we'd have a pep rally. You know, just put on a real good performance for the camera. And as soon as the board, you know, stepped out-and you've got to remember that a lot of these folks on the board, they were sitting back there going, 'Oh my God. What is going to happen here?' and 'These folks are going,' you know. They were just somewhat apprehensive, but as soon as it was ready for the meeting to start, be quiet, sit down, and it be perfect ladies and gentlemen. And that would freak them out, too. [Laughter] And you know we worked on prepared statements on the issue. The central issue was the desegregation plan: busing. To what extent were black kids as opposed to white kids going to be bused across town and for how many years. And, you know, our position then was one of equity.
MD: So this was during the development of the Finger Plan and the whole--:
KA: Umhum. This is back in the real beginning of all of this.
MD: When Judge McMillan is ruling and its going to the Supreme Court and there are all these issues?
KA: Umhum. Oh yeah. There's a picture from that period of several members of our youth group, protesting out in front of the education center. It appeared in New York Times, you know, and several other publications. It's real funny, because it's a wide shot of several people who were marching. It gets cropped, and it gets cropped, it gets cropped down to about three, you know, people, and we use to have a print of it around here somewhere. I don't know. I haven't seen it in a while. It's probably in one of those giant scrap books. But again, it's an extension of training. We taught people how to stand up with confidence in front of public bodies and not be afraid. We taught them how to exercise their constitutional rights to protest without impinging upon other people's rights. As we marched back and forth in front of the education center, we had a copy of the ordinance. We knew that you had to be ten feet behind the person in front of you. You had to have somebody there to maintain the separation. We knew that you could not block entrance to or egress from a building. So we marched not blocking the driveways. We marched not blocking the entrances. We did it in full compliance with the law. And that's one of the things I'm very proud of, that we taught people how to use the American Constitutional system in compliance with the law, to pursue changes in public policy, in a time-honored American way. [Pause] That's what it's all about.
MD: And do you think it was the leadership of the NAACP, that helped the lid stay on in Charlotte? You know, not having these kind of explosive, you know, in the streets but more in the courts and we're going to do this, the as you say the "American" way following the rules and using the Constitution versus in the street. I mean even when you were in the street, you know it was ordered, you know it was. I mean do you think it was the leadership?
KA: Oh yes. I mean I, you know, as I said I was a political science major, and when a lot of this stuff started that summer I was also an intern with community relations, which was sort of amusing because in my off time I was organizing demonstrations and in my on time I was charged with monitoring and making sure that nothing unatoned happened.
MD: And this was for the school board? Community relations or community relations within the mayor's office?
KA: Community, well by then it was Community Relations Committee, separate, you know, city operations. Jack Bullock was the head of it. And on his staff, at that time he had a, at least one person charged with school affairs, and you know, interns do whatever interns and are assigned, so I was doing some of everything. That was one of the portfolios that I picked up, and like I say, it was kind of amusing since, during the day I was charged with keeping the peace that I was organizing at night. Tape 2, side 2.
KA: But, hey, we kept the peace.
MD: It worked?
KA: It worked.
MD: I just have a few more questions for you, and we'll wrap up. Let me ask you a little bit about the Lazy B. stable case. Do you remember the Lazy B. case and the Charlotte Three?
KA: I know what you are talking about, but that was during the period of time when I was essentially in Chapel Hill.
MD: I'm just curious if that had, if the events prior, why I'm asking, leading up to the whole desegregation events, because things were sort of seen as radicals. you know I just wondered?
KA: Talk to T.J. He's--:
MD: Yeah, I might go talk to him.
KA: He's an interesting fellow. I mean I know him, come across him all the time. I mean he. There have been times where some people have considered me to be a radical. Though I've never considered myself to be a radical. So when somebody characterizes, you know. And, I know, my father in his part of his career considered to be a radical simply because he believed in integration. So you always have to figure out where somebody's standing when they start discussing radicalism. Most of the folks wanted the same thing everybody else wanted. They just differed in the means. And the rapidity about which they wanted changed. And from a pure analytical standpoint, to me that's been the big discussion here in Charlotte: how fast something's going to happen, who going to lead it, and exactly which direction it's going to move in.
MD: And you feel that the NAACP and the leaders of the NAACP were influential in making those decisions?
KA: Yeah, and the way to gauge it is to ask yourself the age-old question: when you got a problem, who you're going to call? In this period of time, whether you loved them or hated them, if you had a racial-related issue about to pop, you called on the NAACP. You called my old man, you called me, you called my brother. You know you called some of the other folk who had various portfolios, but it all was around an NAACP orbit. And another way of gauging it is to listen to what people say now, which is, you know, I'm always confronted with "Man things sure are different since you aren't involved. I remember when we could get so and so done, but now we can't even them folk on the telephone." So it's, it's a combination, I think, of organization, and NAACP does have a long organizational history. And the people ran the manned the round parts of the organization. Because you can have the best organization in the world, but if you don't know what to do with it, it pretty soon falls into disrepair. And for most of the last century, we were fortunate enough to have simultaneously, an organization and people who knew how to do something with it.
MD: Here in Charlotte?
KA: Umhum.
MD: Where do you think Charlotte stands today in terms of, as a reflection of this history that you are talking about? I know you said earlier when we first started the interview that you saw sort of Charlotte as being in the same place, sort of in having that same kind of zeitgeist, spirit about it.
KA: Umhum.
MD: What do you think about the legacy of the work of, your work, if you can reflect on it, your father's work, about the way that, you talked about why you think the Charlotte integration, desegregation, of schools, went as it did. What do you think sort of the legacy is of that today in our community?
KA: Well I think, you know, my work's still a work in progress. I'm like Aristotle in a way. Someone asked him about a well lived life, and he said well you can only come to a decision about that pretty much when you are at the end of it, to look back over it, and ascertain whether or not it is better in the main, you know, positive as opposed to negative, so I'm still doing things. So it's going to be for somebody else to look back over my career and determine whether or not that was good, bad, or indifferent. But at this juncture at what I'm doing, my focus is more on how Charlotte develops, so that it develops in ways in which people live in some of the corridors that go into the uptown. Some of these neighborhoods that have a disproportionate number of poor people in them. The neighborhoods are degentrified to the point that some of the original inhabitants can't live their any more. And some of the amenities that people take for granted in the more affluent areas of the community are spread out, so that you can find decent grocery stores in all parts of the community. Some of the ambiance that is being developed with the pseudo-European plaza approach can likewise be developed in some of the other areas. Johnson C. Smith, for instance, has an opportunity I think to develop a rounded, a real university district, an urban university district different from the kind of development out at UNC Charlotte, which has a much larger hundred-acre or more campus to spread out in. That there is room in this community for the kind of imagination that is building uptown to build structures out in our communities. Another focus is on how the community accommodates to discovering that there is more than just two groups living here. All of our politics up to this point has been built on blacks and whites. Well we've got to start figuring out how to include Latins and Asians into this equation. And nobody's quite figured that out yet. And that's going to be a challenge. We have an upcoming challenge, when the white community wakes up and discovers it's minority and not the majority they can dictate at the polls as it has been in the past. Forty-four of this nation's 100 largest cities right now have minority majorities. In the Carolinas, well, Charlotte's minority population right now is about 30 pushing 40 percent. So we can easily see these demographic changes taking places. The challenge of how you integrate all of this, as you look at regionalism, you know. Transportation, for instance, is not a Charlotte problem. It's a regional problem. Education is increasingly a regional problem. Opportunities is increasingly a regional problem. We have regional business organizations that are addressing it. Regional governmental organizations that are addressing it. The only people who have not quite figured this out yet are the Asians, the Latins, the black folk, the poor people, the religious community. You know, all the forces that have successfully figured out how to work politics in the core city, but haven't quite woken up to the fact that that political dynamic is about to change on them. And at the same engagement that you have the core city, you are going to have to have with these regional institutions. We're in the heart of a metroplex, whether we realize it or not. Well, some people do, but many do not. And that's going to be a major struggle over the next couple of decades. You know, how to make opportunity in this new world- that the twenty-first century is going to be-work. You know, we talk about desegregation. I just want to say this one thing because I think it is extremely important. We have argued for the last half century about how to integrate or desegregate a nineteenth-century institution. Our public schools have been organized to produce real good factory workers. I mean that's how they are structured at the secondary level. In the twenty-first century, where libraries are becoming databases, where computers are almost going to be ubiquitous, like a utility. Where the whole concept about how one is educated is about to change. Where the notion that in order to get a quality education, student A and student B have to get on a bus and go anywhere is about to be outmoded. That they have to follow a set, fixed schedule is about to be outmoded. You know, I sit in this house most mornings and conduct direct dialogue and work with people all over the place. The columns that I write for the Observer, I have people in several states that generally comment on them before the Observer sees them. Now you tell me how that relates to an eighteenth-century concept of anything. So that's my challenge. How to take some of the best of the last centuries` gains and translate them in ways that are going to make sense in the twenty-first century.
Groups: