Accessibility Navigation:

Interview with James E. Ferguson II

Interviewee: 
Ferguson, James Elliot
Interviewer: 
Desmarais, Melinda H.
Date of Interview: 
2001-11-28
Identifier: 
OHFE0251
Subjects: 
Ferguson, James E., II., 1942-; Swann, James E.; Reddy, T. J., 1945-; Parker, Charles, 1948-; Grant, James Earl; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education; Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality; African American lawyers; Trials, litigation, etc.; Racism; Race relations; Civil rights movements; Segregation in education; School integration; Busing for school integration; North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Asheville; Interviews (Sound recordings); Oral Histories
Abstract: 
James Ferguson, a partner at the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, recounts his life’s work fighting for civil rights in the state. His involvement with social justice began when he was still in high school, where he helped found the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, which successfully negotiated the desegregation of Asheville’s public facilities. Mr. Ferguson explains his role in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and describes the community’s reaction to school integration. He argues against the popular narrative of Charlotte as the ‘city that made desegregation work’ with examples from his experience, including the school board’s resistance to integration at the time of the Supreme Court ruling and how the board continued to subvert the spirit of Judge McMillan’s requirement of ‘equal distribution’ through busing and new school development policies through the present date of interview. Mr. Ferguson shares what he sees as the most positive outcomes of school integration, including a higher quality of education for African American students, and how exposure to each other has benefited both white and black students and strengthened the community as a whole. He also discusses his involvement with the ‘Charlotte Three’ case and how, despite the government’s fears at the time, Charlotte lacked any real radical movement. The interview closes with his thoughts on the future of race relations in Charlotte. Despite the city’s growing diversity, he foresees continued tensions as the fight over neighborhood schools and the push to re-segregate the school system increases as a result of the appeals court’s 2001 affirmation of the district court’s 1999 ruling ending mandatory busing in the reactivated Swann case.
Coverage: 
North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Asheville; circa 1950 - 2001
Interview Setting: 
Law Office, Kenilworth Avenue, North Carolina--Charlotte
Collection: 
Oral History, OH
Interview Audio: 
Transcript:
Notes:
JF: James Elliot Ferguson II
MD: Melinda Desmarais

Minidisc 1 begins.

MD: Today is Wednesday November the 28th the year is 2001 and I’m Melinda Desmarais the interviewer. And I am here with James Ferguson II at his law office at 741 Kenilworth Avenue. I’m conducting this oral history interview for the digital sound initiative for the department of Special Collections at Atkins Library for UNC Charlotte. Please state your full name.

JF: James E. Ferguson II.

MD: And Mr. Ferguson what was your date of birth?

JF: October 10th 1942.

MD: And where were you born?

JF: I was born in Asheville North Carolina.

MD: And were your parents always from Asheville?

JF: No my parents migrated to Asheville from a little town in South Carolina that nobody much has ever heard of.

MD: What was it?

JF: It’s a town called Plum Branch, South Carolina. They grew up in Plum Branch and when they were young adults moved to Asheville and raised a family there I was the youngest of seven children of my parents.

MD: And what were your parents names?

JF: My father’s name was James my mother’s name was Nina Freeman Ferguson.

MD: And what did they do in Asheville, how did they--

JF: You mean what work did they do?

MD: Uh-hum.

JF: Well to put it in context what they did, I guess I should first say that my father had a sixth grade education. I think he had completed the sixth grade so he worked all of his life as a laborer of one kind or another. A very bright man. One of the brightest men I have ever known. But because he was, he did not have a formal education, he was limited to the kinds of jobs that were available to him. Of course he was limited by his race as well. So he did a number of different jobs. He worked on the railroad as a laborer in a building that they called the round house that’s where they did repairs on trains. He was not a repairman but he was a laborer there in the round house. He worked there for a number of years until at some point because of some financial difficulties with Southern Railway he was laid off. At that point he worked for the Biltmore Press which was a small press in Asheville and he was a delivery man for the Biltmore Press for a number of years. The owner of the Biltmore Press was a man named Mr. Williams and his wife Harris Williams. They were people for whom my mother worked as a maid. When she worked outside of the home which she did a good bit, so at one point they were both working for the same people. There in Asheville in addition to those two jobs that my father had, he, he did some work on his own. From the time I was a very small child throughout the time that I grew up at Asheville I remember him as having various side businesses of his own. He sold wood and kindling he sold coal. He did some painting and at one point he became a floor finisher. He purchased some machines from a, from a relative or mine who had a floor finishing business and my father took that over. I remember all of those things very well because I grew up having to work on the back of his truck selling coal and kindling and cutting the kindling with the saw we had in the back of, power saw that we had in the back yard. And I remember working with him and doing some paint jobs, and working with him and doing some of the floor finishing that he did and I learned a lot in working with him. My mother’s work as I said was working as a maid and housekeeper for Mrs. Williams. And that proved to be very interesting for us also because even though she worked for Mrs. Williams it turned out over time that she and Mrs. Williams became the best of friends. And Mrs. Williams became a friend of our families as well. I remember when my mother died at the age of seventy-seven I believe she was, Mrs. Williams who then was running the press along with her son Bobby whom my mother had cared for when he was a child they did a program for my mothers funeral and refused to allow us to pay them anything for that. They did the same thing for my father when, when he died. And they of course visited us in at home, during that time and we became close to them, closer to them during that period of time but that was a reflection of the kind of person my mother was, that no matter what their relationship was that she developed with a person she found a way to reach them at their heart and to relate to them in a very, very personal way. So a lot of people resented being African American and having to work in white homes and I’m, I’m sure it was not my mother’s ideal but it was a circumstance that she understood and turned it to her advantage. So I’m, I’m fortunate that I was born to, both my mother and my father and had a wonderful, wonderful upbringing that I had, given the jobs that I’ve described and the fact that they had seven children I can tell you that things were tight but I never knew how tight things were, never knew we were poor, never had a mentality of poverty always felt that we had a good life. Because they never complained to us, they never lamented the fact that they might not have enough to put the kind of food on the table that they would want to, so we didn’t grow up with a poverty mentality, we grew up with the mentality that we could do all that we wanted to do and even though my father only finished the sixth grade, my mother finished high school and had actually one year beyond high school at Howard University in Columbia. Education was very important to them so they made sure that all seven of us could get a college education if we wanted to and all of us went to college. I think only two of us did not graduate from college, but the two that did not graduate developed skills that made it possible for them to be very independent in their lives so I have a lot to be thankful for from my parents who were two of the greatest people that I’ve ever met and when I say that I’ve ever met I mean not just knowing personally but in reading history. I was a history major ( ) political science I’ve never met two people, any two people who were any greater than my parents.

MD: So you moved on and we are skipping a lot of your life

JF: Sure.

MD: But we’re getting to your time in Charlotte you moved on and went to North Carolina Central is that right?

JF: I went to North Carolina Central undergraduate school and took a double major in History and English with a minor in political science, did, did well in school both in the classroom and with extracurricular activities I was president of the study body there and had been president of the sophomore class. I was involved in a lot of campus politics and activities and that is in part what prepared me to go to law school. I wanted to leave North Carolina to get a different experience with the help of some of my college professors. Primarily Professor Jones, Carter Jones and Dr. Helen Edmunds. I was able to, to get into Columbia University Law School.

MD: And when you say different experience what do you mean by that?

JF: Well the south at that time was, was fully segregated we had on full apartheid. I had gone to an all black elementary school, I had gone to an all black high school I had gone to an all black college. My experience had been largely black although I had begun to do civil rights work in junior high school, and in high school. So I had some interaction with, with white people but it was limited. I felt that for the law school experience I wanted to, to get out of the south and to experience education in a, in a more desegregated setting so it’s for that reason that I began to look beyond the south for places to go to law school.

MD: So did you find that at Columbia?

JF: To some extent, at that time there were only a handful of African American students at Columbia. I, I started at Columbia in 1964, and graduated in 1967. Columbia at that time had begun it’s effort to increase the number of African Americans who were attending law school there and they had, had African Americans in the law school there for some time before I don’t know exactly how long but I suspect for a number of years but it was a very token kind of situation. And even in my class it was relatively token. There were just a handful of us, I can’t give you the exact number but it was somewhere around 10 out of a class of three hundred. So it was a different experience in the sense that I was going to a school that was not all black I was going to a school that was almost all white so I’d gone from one extreme to the other because actually in North Carolina Central there were one or two white students there, even at the time when I was there I think. And what one of the things I learned in that experience even though we thought that in the Northeast things were far different from what they were in the South, and in fact they were different, they were not as different as one might have believed and the problems of race affected all parts of the country including the Northeast just as race affected the South differently in some ways. But at Columbia I was very aware that I was an African American minority in a majority school.

MD: And was that true both, in social situations and in the classroom or one way more that the other.

JF: Well I, I think it was true throughout I mean the role that race has played in America is such that at that time, one was always aware of one’s race. If you were black you couldn’t escape it and it didn’t matter whether you were in the classroom or whether you were in a social setting wherever you were it was just a stark fact of life that you had to deal with because most everything was defined by race and that was true in Columbia, that was true in North Carolina Central. That was true in high school it was true in Asheville it was true in New York it was true everywhere I went. It was true in DC where I worked during one of the summers I was at law school. It was true in Mississippi where I did work when I was in law school, it was true in Alabama Tennessee everywhere you went race was just a stark fact of life. It still is although there has been significant change and significant improvement over race relations over time. While we’re talking about race I, I have to tell you that my fourth, my first orientation to racial politics was in, at high school, I mentioned junior high school earlier and I can tell you about that very quickly but at high school two things happened to--

MD: And this is in Asheville?

JF: This is in Asheville. The schools in Asheville as I mentioned were totally racially segregated so much so that students would bus 88 miles a day, black students from a far away as Burnsville, North Carolina to attend high school in Asheville, North Carolina. It was 88 miles round trip, folks took that for granted because black students couldn’t go to school with white students. And whatever they needed to do to make sure that didn’t happen the authorities did, so busing for segregation was a fact of life that I grew up with but the, the point that I wanted to come to is that two things happened during my high school experience that, that helped me get started in devoting my life to trying to make changes in racial relationships and to bring about equality for all people. When I was attending Stephens-Lee High School there were two schools in Asheville, the black high school Stephens-Lee, the white high school Lee Edwards I became president of the student government at Stephens-Lee at, it was called mayor of the school, and during that period of time the school authorities proposed to make some changes to do a small addition to Stephens-Lee. I led a group of students in protesting improvements to the school. One doesn’t usually protest improvement but our concern was that the sight where Stephens-Lee was located was not big enough to accommodate the kind of facility that we felt--when I say we, my colleagues and I who objected to the changes that were being made--we felt that the changes were not sufficient to make Stephens-Lee anywhere close to equal to Lee Edwards and we felt that we were entitled to have that done if there were ever going to be changes that needed to do that. So we protested, we protested to the school superintendent we protested to the school board in spite of the fact that our principal at Stephens-Lee was afraid for us to do that and wanted to impose discipline on us for doing that, but we did it anyway and we threatened to walk out of Stephens-Lee and to lead a group of students from Stephens-Lee to Lee Edwards. We were going to enroll in Lee Edwards if we couldn’t have the kind of changes we felt should take places at Stephens-Lee. Needless to say once we threatened to go to Lee Edwards in mass they rethought the plans and did not make the additions at Stephens-Lee but instead put plans in foot to build a new black high school, so it was, and they did build it, was called South French Broad High School. It later became a junior high school when the schools were desegregated and all students went to, to Lee Edwards. But that experience was an experience that, that helped me to learn that one could bring about change if one stood up for what one believed in. During the same period of time when I was a high school senior at Stephens-Lee, the sit-in started in Greensboro. I felt that Asheville needed to change and some of the same students that had protested the addition to the high school joined with me in that and we formed a group called the Asheville student committee on racial equality. I was the founder and first president of that group. And we set out to desegregate Asheville. We didn’t have a college so we didn’t feel we could do the sit-ins in the same way that they did, but we immersed ourselves in learning the non-violent method of Martin Luther King, and Gandhi and others and we attended workshops, read materials and learned the method and what was then called direct action. Which comes in stages, what people saw were the sit-ins, but you first identify the problem and then you try to address the problem through negotiation, and then if you can’t do that you ( ) and then you eventually you engage in civil disobedience. We were prepared to do that, we met with the only two black lawyers in town and those two black lawyers told us that they would support us in whatever we wanted to do. They didn’t give us a lecture in law and told us to be careful about this and watch this and watch that. They said, “You do what you have to do we’ll be there to support you,” that’s when I decided for sure that I wanted to go into law. I said I wanted to be able to help make change in my community and being a lawyer is a way to do that. To make a long story short, as a group of high school students we negotiated with the owners of department stores, the mayor, the city leaders and eventually desegregated the public facilities of Asheville. The library, the recreation park, we got people hired and jobs that they had to have before and that was a great experience as a high school student. There was another experience that told me if you put in the practice and principles that you believe in and you are willing to stand up for what you believe you can make a change. So with that in mind I left Asheville, went to North Carolina Central, went to Columbia,went to Columbia with the idea in mind that I would get a law degree and come back to Asheville to finish the work that we had started there. In the mean time I met a lawyer Julius Chambers, who’s practicing here in Charlotte, doing the kind of work that I wanted to do. We met fortuitously in New York. We were introduced by Jack Greenberg who is the director council of the legal defense fund. I happened to be at the fund one day talking to them about their internship program which was to encourage black lawyers to return to the south. Chambers was already one of their cooperating attorneys. He happened to be there that day we met. And he asked me what I was doing. I told him. I told him what I wanted to do, I wanted to go to Asheville after I finish school. And he said “well, I’m doing that kind of work in Charlotte that you say you want to do in Asheville, why don’t you come down take a look, if you going to do that kind of work you’re going to be all over the state anyway. So I came down during the Easter break. Following Chambers around. Stayed at his house. He was kind enough to accommodate me in his house and I decided this is what I wanted to do and he decided he’d take a chance on me, so he offered me a job and I joined in, in the fall. And in 1967 and the year following that we formed the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.

MD: The Ferguson Stein?

JF: It has become Ferguson-Stein Chambers now but at that time it was Chambers-Stein-Ferguson and Landing. Two white, two black lawyers Chambers and I being the black lawyers, Adam Stein and Jim Landing being the white lawyers. And the firm has devoted itself from that forward to doing civil rights work along with other traditional legal work to pay the bills.

MD: How was the firm sort of received in Charlotte, was it a first in terms of being an integrated firm? How was it received, how were you received?

JF: Well it was an oddity at the time, we were the first integrated firm in North Carolina as far as I know. And at that time we were heavily engaged in civil rights work. We were doing schools, we were doing public accommodations, we were doing employment, voting rights, we were doing all of the things that had just taken place beginning in 1964. We were the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and then the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and later the Housing Act in 1968. We were doing all of that kind of civil rights work and we were greeted with hostility by many. Our offices were burned in 1970. Burned to the ground. Before I came to Charlotte, Chambers’s house had been bombed, his car had been bombed and other civil rights leaders had met with that, so we, you know we received our share of the threatening phone calls, hostile treatment from people. But because we did the work we did and we did it in the way that we did it people soon began to accept us, as a, as an institution that was going to be around. And as an institution that was going to make some change and over time I think we became respected as an institution in Charlotte, as an institution in North Carolina. And even though people didn’t like the work that we were doing because there was a lot of resistance to the work that we were doing at that time, they came to respect us and I think that that’s true today.

MD: And when you say people I’m assuming that you’re talking about the white community specifically. Were there members of the African American community here in Charlotte who were, you know, not supportive of, of your endeavors?

JF: I mean by large the African American community was very supportive--

MD: Or methods?

JF: They, they were, there was a certain amount of pride that most people in the black community took in having a law firm that was willing to take on the work that we took on. And at the same time a law firm that was trying to address other issues of the African American community not just the civil rights issues. But we were doing wills, we were representing people in criminal court, we were doing real property transactions. We were doing all of the legal work that people needed and people could come to us and they know that they would be, they knew that they would be respected as people. They didn’t always get that at white law firms and by white lawyers because of the mores of the time. I mean, black folks were second class citizens and were treated as such by almost everybody. It was just the way thing were done at the time, so I think there was a great deal of pride in what we were doing, a great deal of support for us. There may have been some who felt that is was better to leave things as they were and not try to make change too fast but that was never a serious factor with us because, the Civil Rights Movement the modern Civil Rights Movement which had started I guess around, I date it back to 1954 with the Brown decision and then 1957 with Martin Luther King’s first march and, and Montgomery and Birmingham and around. So that by this time there was a spirit in the African American community that things were going to change and we were part of the instrument of that change so I think people viewed us as much with hope as with pride and wanted to see us succeed in what we do.

MD: So you came here right sort of at the time that this Swann issue started to bubble up and, you know, really explode. What, what were your personal experiences about the Swann decision. Did, did someone come to you about that initially and say we think we’re going to take this on, Swann at all. Or do you remember what you personal initial experiences were with Swann as a case or as Mr. and Mrs. Swann?

JF: Well I do just to, to an extent. And let me, let me just tell you this. The Swann case had actually started in 1965 which was before I came--

MD: You came.

JF: Yeah, and the case was litigated during that period of time. Julius Chambers was the principal lawyer doing the case at that time with some limited, very limited success, at that time. I think the court had approved a freedom of choice plan which resulted in very little desegregation if any at all. In 1968 Chambers supported by Adam Stein and myself filed a motion for further relief in that case because nothing much had changed from the others that were in it following the 1965 lawsuit, and it was the 1968 motion for further relief that sort of brought the Swann case to the fore in the community, and what I remember is the fierce resistance that the white community had to any meaningful and significant desegregation of the schools at that time. The school board chairman who was built on a lawyer himself at that time--

MD: And was this, did it, did this break down a different levels of resistance based on class or was this an across the board Charlotte white thing I mean when you say massive resistance--

JF: Well I, I, I think it’s fair to say that most of the white establishment in Charlotte was opposed to significant change in the desegregation of the schools. As long as it was freedom of choice or nothing much was happening, black schools were operating much as they had before where they were interfering with white schools. There were white children going to schools in their neighborhoods and a few black children were bold enough to go, would dare to go into those schools. That was basically OK, not something that they vigorously supported but as long as it didn’t rock the boat--

MD: Token--

JF: No problem,

MD: ( )

JF: Yes. And we have to remember back in the late 50s when Dorothy Counts had tried to integrate what was then Central High School [Harding High School] which is, which was at the site where Irwin Elementary School is now, my children went to Irwin Elementary School as a matter of fact, she was spat upon and she was hooted away. The school did not allow her to attend school there and she wound up coming to Asheville to go to Allen High School. She and I became friends at Asheville and remained friends all the time. So it was that kind of resistance from the beginning to integration of the schools that was still sort of the prevailing mentality and on into the mid 60’s. So that for the most part there was strong resistance in the white community. Now there have always been a few people in the white community who have distinguished themselves by being strongly in support of desegregation

MD: Who were those people?

JF: So there were a few people in the community at that time--I remember Maggie Ray for example who eventually became chair of a citizens committee that was able to, to, to change, to begin changing some of the attitudes of resistance in the community. There was a man on the school board named Dr. Carlton Watkins, who was more progressive than most members of the school board during the late 60s early 70s, who’s a voice of reason. So there were a few people I’m missing some people because I just haven’t concentrated on who they are. Judge McMillan for example, was different from the establishment. And that is why he was ostracized by the community when he said in 1971, 1969 I’m sorry that the schools needed to be desegregated in a significant way and that the same tools that had been used to segregate the schools could be used to desegregate the schools. A lot of people focused on transportation-- of desegregating schools and there was fierce resistance to Judge McMillan’s 1969 order that their, busing as people came to call it, could be used to desegregate the school.

MD: And what examples of fierce resistance do you remember that might have been either targeted towards you or that you remember the ways that whites acted out in that kind of resistance.

JF: Well I didn’t get a lot of individual hostility directed to me, we were, we were working through the courts to accomplish what we needed to accomplish. The school board was fiercely resisting it through the courts. In the schools themselves once the order came and desegregation, some desegregation began to take place, I remember that a number of black students were unfairly disciplined. The police were called to the schools a lot because of the fears of white parents, black students were often charged offenses that today would be overlooked and would have been overlooked before that time if they took place in a completely segregated school system. If there was a lot of that kind of resistance, that, that took place. Telephone calls, threatening calls would come from time to time, but that was just a part of what we expected I suppose. So our, our fight, was, was, was largely the focus in the courts, but there was a lot of excitement in the black community about the changes that were taking place because people were beginning to see that there was a better way, their children could get a better education. They had seen the differences in the black schools and the white schools with the, the facilities the resources. There was just no comparison. There was just, everything black was inferior. And everything white was superior when it came to schools. And other things in the community as well--

MD: How did, how did people get, in the black community, did you all or other organizations prepare the African American students for this transition in any way, I mean was there a workshop for parents or was there any sort of preparation or coaching on a, you know maybe of course a personal level, but how about, you know a broader level in the African American Community about what to expect or--

JF: Sure, that was time when there would be large meetings in the community where people would talk about civil rights issues, we’d talk about what was happening in the schools what’s happening in the community--

MD: Would you hold those meetings?

JF: We would participate from time to time, we were not the ones who called the meetings, this was an effort that involved more than just a lawsuit, you had community leaders, NAACP leaders, Reggie Hawkins was active in the community, Kelly Alexander was active in the community, others were active in getting the community together to, to address these issues, so that was talked about all the time. There wasn’t any systematic regular classes held to try to teach black students how to act what to expect but they would be told, parents would be told you know, what we were trying to do and what was going to happen. That was preparation but things were happening fast, there was a lot of excitement so we had to take things as they came, and there was not really that much time given with everything that was going on to set up the kind of mechanism that, that one might ideally like to see for getting them into that kind of change.

MD: How did you feel the first day when the buses were rolling and--

JF: It was exciting, it was exciting because that was a, that was symbolic of significant change that was taking place, it was symbolic of a new day in Charlotte, Mecklenburg, it was symbolic of a new hope, a new pride and just a new belief that, that, that change could take place. There was also some fear because we knew that there would be resistance to the black children going to the white schools and white communities. And so there was a great deal of fear for the safety for our children, we had people on alert to things that might happen and I’m, I’m, I’m happy to say looking back at that, that the number of, of actual incidents of violence were very few. Hostility was present, it was in the air but I don’t recall there being a huge number of violent incidents as this took place, we didn’t have the standing on the schoolhouse door that you’ve seen back in the late 50s when I think it was in ( ) Arkansas later Wallace, Alabama

MD: George Wallace yes (laughs) Did you feel that as a leader in Black Community who was obviously very embroiled in the whole situation even though it wasn’t a legal stance, did you feel that you had, by the time you go down to the, to the point of this as being enforced essentially, did you feel at that point that you had the cooperation of at least the leadership in Charlotte, the school board?

JF: When you say the leader of the school board no, the school board did not provide leadership. The school board provided resistance to that, now they were resistant to the courts but the were resistant and you didn’t have, it wasn’t as though at that time the white community was saying “We want to make this work in Charlotte.”

MD: Even when it becomes evident that it’s going to happen.

JF: Yeah it was evident that it was happening but there was still hope within the white community and belief within in the white community that they could resist, and that’s what all of the appeals were all about, and that’s what the numerous orders the Judge McMillan had to enter were all about, because the school board wasn’t following the orders that the court gave, the school board wasn’t providing leadership to the community in making this happen

MD: How about the political--

JF: It was years down the road, before the school board experienced a change of attitude. This was ’69 and then it was eventually upheld in 1971 or between ’69 and 1975 there was resistance, nothing but resistance on the part of the school board. They weren’t saying this is the way we ought to operate our schools and this is going to be better for the community, they weren’t saying that at all. They were saying never, this is not the way to do it, we don’t want a federal judge telling us how to the schools. We want to do it ourselves and gradualism is the way to do it. It is not the way to do it, so no, you didn’t have leadership coming from the white establishment at that time, either from the school board or from the larger community, it just wasn’t there.

MD: From the political arena, elected officials--

JF: From the political arena, from the schools, elected officials they were resistant, they were following the school board, they were hoping to change, they were ostracizing Judge Macmillan for entering the order. There was no, no leadership at that time.

MD: Because--

JF: You had the Concerned Parents group [Concerned Parents Association] in the white community that was trying to resist school desegregation. Judge Potter was trying to resist school desegregation at that time, he was advising parents who weren’t involved in the lawsuit, but they were resisting desegregation so the white establishment was opposed to this.

MD: Because sort of the story if you will that has existed about Charlotte and this sort of idea, about Charlotte being a place that did things smoothly, that you know, it wasn’t like a Boston for example or you know a Detroit where people took to the streets ( ) and you know there’s this idea that some earlier historians have read that Charlotte was a different place, that is was easier in Charlotte or that you know and I’m just wondering if you think that’s true and you know why did the lid kind of stay on here versus you know, it exploding like it might have in other places. First of all that’s a load of questions a couple of questions there--

JF: No, I’m familiar with that gloss that is put on it, and let me, let me just try to put this in context for you as much as I can. Charlotte did not have the kind of violence that you saw in Boston now the reasons for that I don’t know what all the reasons are, part of it I suppose it that Charlotte decided to try to fight it at a different way. They were every bit as opposed to taking place as were the people in Boston. Fortunately I think for Charlotte that opposition didn’t manifest itself through violence as I mentioned to you before, there were very few incidents of violence. I’m not recalling any that stand out. So if you measure it solely by violence I suppose you could say that Charlotte was better but I don’t think the full measure is violence. People resist in different ways. Now I do think that people have different ideas about things, that the best way to address that is not through violence, the way to address that is to resolve this in some civil way, so Charlotte took to the courts for the most part, to fight it, but that doesn’t mean that Charlotte from the outset had this progressive attitude that they were going to make this work and they were preparing the community for it, and the leadership prepared the community to do it, they didn’t do that. They resisted it, although they resisted it without the violence.

MD: In a civil manner.

JF: Yes, in a little more civil manner than the others but still resistant. After the Supreme Court decision came down in 1971 there was still resistance by the school board to the orders of the judge to desegregate the schools. It was not until 1975 that Judge McMillan himself said in his order that there seemed to be a different attitude among the school board. By that time, I think the school board and leaders in the community had accepted the inevitable. That there was going to be a different way that the schools were going to operate. And once they acknowledged and accepted that then over time the attitudes began to change. The citizens committee that I mentioned to you earlier led by Maggie Ray was established I think around 1974, could have been ‘73 and they began to council more moderation in the community. They began to help prepare the community for the fact the law of the land declare and that things were going to have to change. So once things reached that point when the leadership in the community recognized that their efforts of resistance were futile, then they began to change their attitude individually. The attitude became one of trying to make it work. The school superintendent J. Robinson who came I can’t remember exactly when it was that Robinson came it was in the late 70s early 80s somewhere along in there, who was a very practical minded person, began to try to look at ways to make it work better and going forward the board changed and attitudes, personnel and attitudes on the board changed and things got better. At least in terms of dropping the resistance. Now I think I need to point this out because this also is, has gotten confused by the people who write about it. Charlotte desegregated it’s schools through the use of busing and achieved relative racial ratios in the schools as a result of busing. But the busing was always unfair. It was always primarily the youngest African American students being bused out of their neighborhoods to white neighborhoods and white students being bused only from the third grade on up, but from kindergarten through third grade the parents were such that the African Americans the schools in our communities were closed. So the burden of busing as we called it was always harder on the backs of African American children and that has remained true during the whole period of time. There has been busing up until the present time. It’s also important to remember that although the school board had achieved a relative racial ratios ( ) Judge McMillan’s order they never carried out his orders. Judge McMillan not only ordered the busing be used as a tool, he also ordered that the schools, that the new schools be located in a way that would facilitate desegregation and not complicate desegregation. The school board did just the opposite. They, they built black the schools in white communities. They didn’t build schools where they’d be equally accessible to white students or black students so that you would then have a more natural integration of schools and you wouldn’t have to rely on the busing that people talk so much about. They’ve never done that, till this day they have not done that, virtually all the schools were built in white communities. From, from 1960--from 1971 until the present time there’ve only been one or two schools built in a black African American community, numerous schools built in the white communities and often built in the peripheries of the white community so that it almost assured that the only way to maintain desegregation would be to continue to bus. Judge McMillan was very insightful and he knew that busing was a temporary tool but that something and infrastructure had to be put into place if you want to maintain desegregation of the schools and that had to involve the location of schools. That was never done. Judge McMillan ordered it that the burden of busing be more--

MD: Equally distributed--

JF: Be more equally shared that was never done. Judge McMillan ordered that the transfers be monitored so that students could not transfer from a school that was desegregated to other schools to make them more segregated. That was never followed so that over time, even though the school board was making adjustments in it’s busing plan and assignment plan, over time the schools became more and more segregated from the optimum desegregation that you have beginning in, in around 1975.

MD: And why do you think, since that was happening and the parties who were supposed to be monitoring it wasn’t, were there other people in the community who were saying “hey wait a minute this isn’t right” or were they so pleased to have whatever form of desegregation or integration possible, I mean, were there other people in the community as watchdogs seeing this sort of unfold but--

JF: Well a number of things were going on in the community and there all along there have been forces in the community saying it’s not working the way it should work even as we had you know desegregated schools based on the transportation and, and assignment. There were people on the school board when we got African Americans elected to the school board ( ) Sarah Stevens, George Battle, Arthur Griffin over the years Phil Berry over the years have voiced concerns about the unfairness of the way it was done. There were people in the community who objected to busing in the black community who objected to busing when it started because it was unfair to blacks. I wasn’t one of those who had very, very serious reservations about the way it was working at that time. Reggie Hawkins, Dr. Hawkins who was one of the main plaintiffs in the lawsuit voiced a lot of concern about it at the time so and others, there were people in the community who recognized that it was unfair from the beginning but we accepted it because we felt that we needed to make the change, hoping and feeling that over time we we’d be able to straighten it out. The other thing that happened quite honestly is that at a point Judge McMillan was no longer the judge who would hear the case and some of us knew that it would be very difficult to address some of these issues if you didn’t have the right judge who understood what was involved here and who had a commitment to bringing about equality. As it turns out Judge Potter got a hold of the case and was able to, to enter an order that changed what, what we’d been working towards over time. Then that is part of the new phase of the case--

MD: And I, I do want to address the new phase of the case--

JF: Sure

MD: But I’d like to just hold that for just a few minutes and--

JF: Sure.

Minidisc 1 ends; Minidisc 2 begins.

MD: This is Melinda Desmarais today is Wednesday November the 28th, the year is 2001 and I am here interviewing James E. Ferguson II at his law firm in Charlotte North Carolina for the digital sound archive project special collections department at UNC Charlotte. (pause) So we were talking, you were moving on into the issues that you discussed sort of the newest phase of Swann and do that maybe until the end of our interview.

JF: Sure.

MD: At the time, I know you, you’ve discussed the whole emphasis on the burden of busing as it’s termed being really put on even the youngest of African American students and that you had some reservations about that at the time, but that you felt it was necessary to move on and the time was right in a critical point in Charlotte to move on. At that time did, if you were evaluating sort of a decision of Swann and the impact it had on the African American community aside from the burden of busing which was clearly something that you were concerned about, at that time, say 5 years into this experiment working, broken or not it’s still working, what was your assessment about the impact from the African American and the white community in Charlotte, once this experiment, what’s justice whatever you want to call it, it’s rolling and moving along?

JF: Well I think it had a significant impact on the quality of education for African American students. I think what we knew at the time that we were trying to bring about desegregation in schools proved to be true, that is that, unless you put black and white students together in the classroom you would never have the kind of equality that you ought to have in education in educating students. The only way you were going to get equal facilities was to have them in the same schools or the way you were going to get equality among teachers was to have students in the same schools. The only way you were going to have equality of resources was to have children in the same schools because as long as there was racial segregation and isolation you were never going to get the kind of resources in an African American Community that you had in a white community. Politically it just wasn’t going to happen. A lot of people thought erroneously that there was some feeling that black children couldn’t learn unless they were sitting next to white children. That was never the idea, the point was they were never going to get the kind of equal educational opportunity that they deserved unless they would get it at the same time and in the same way the white students were getting it. The notion of separate but equal had long been discredited. So there was some people to be sure in the black community who did not want to see the schools that our community closed, they did not want to see our children bused out because they felt that would be bad for our community. And there are some who actually feel that way right now, because they felt at least during this period we had our schools and we had our teachers who cared, our teachers who were committed to our children and I understand that kind of nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that we never had our schools. They were always the schools that were controlled by the white political majority and they were always inferior, and they were always going to be inferior as long as that happened. It would have been better if there had been two way mixing and if the schools in the African American community could have been brought up to, to speed in the white community and desegregation could have been a one way street but that’s not something that could have practically been achieved at that time. So I think the educational benefits have been significant although I’m fully aware that the achievement gap between African American students and white students is still there it’s still very vast and it still needs to be addressed. But I look at that as, as something historical that as an indication of just how deep seated the effects of a dual system have been takes years and year and decades to change that. So in time that will change as well but in terms of exposure, in terms of facilities, in terms of the quality of the kind of education one has been able to get, that has been significantly improved by the desegregation effort. The job has not been completed but, but it’s been better. The other thing that it has done for both black students and white students is that it has given students an exposure to each other that has to be beneficial in a society. A society simply cannot exist one race or ethnic group over here and another over here and never coming into contact, so I think the cross culturalization has been positive. I think every community needs that. I think schools, school segregation has been important in bringing that about. It’s teaching students how to live together, how to play together, how to love to together, how to understand together, how to be together in a society and then if you don’t have that then you don’t have a society that’s a unified society so I think that has been good because I think it has opened the eyes of many white people to the fact that their notions of racial superiority for whites and racial superiority for blacks was misplaced. The knowledge of, of the opportunity just to get to know each other has dispelled a lot of those ideas. Not totally but far more than could have been achieved otherwise so I think it has had a very beneficial effect in that way. When we look at the kind of world we live in now and the kind of world we’re moving towards then I think we can see the benefits of that. The workplace has changed. When I came to Charlotte in 1967 the workplace was totally segregated. You didn’t have any African Americans working in banks uptown and anything other than the most low level positions. You didn’t have any African Americans working in government at any significant level, you just didn’t have African Americans working in private industry. It’s all segregated in that way and we live in a world now where the workplace has become much more desegregated than it was during that period of time, it’s not fully desegregated and there’ll be a time when that happens but people are working together and they’re able to do that better I think because they’ve gone to school together and they’ve gotten to know each other better. So it’s not cultural shock any more when you walk into the workplace and there’s an African American who has a position of some responsibility that you wouldn’t have seen 25-30 years ago. So it has made us better, as a society, we’ve grown as a society. As a result of being together in school, getting to know each other better, being together in the workplace getting to know each other better. We’re still a very segregated society in many ways, I mean you get outside the workplace and you see very little segregation and when you get outside the schoolhouse you see very little desegregation. People don’t socialize that much together anymore. People don’t go to church together. People don’t belong to social and civic clubs very much, you know a little bit of it but not much. People still live their lives primarily among people of their own race. Over time that will change but, people live in communities that are still largely segregated although there has been some movement of blacks into white communities, you haven’t had the opposite. White people don’t move into black communities, so whatever housing desegregation there has been has come as a result of blacks in the white community for the most part and that has still been very limited and it is for that reason that the neighborhood school concept that some people support now will lead to desegr--to re-segregation of schools because you haven’t had the kind of desegregation in housing patterns that you have to have if you’re going to have a truly desegregated society.

MD: Let me ask you about just a few more things and the I, I want to move on to the reactivation of Swann--

JF: Sure.

MD: We keep, we keep getting there--

JF: That’s all right.

MD: Let me ask you a little bit about your involvement with, with the Reddy, Parker, the Charlotte Three incident and trial and I know they were indicted in ’72 and one of the questions that I have and I’ve asked a number of people is about sort of and you’ve touched on this already but I want to expand upon it, about radicalism in Charlotte. You know I know that some people have said yes, there were some movements, some Smith students, some others you know who were more radical as the late ‘60s sort of a switch in some sense of the civil rights movement that becomes more radical. Some people have said “yes, yes” Dr. Hawkins for example I’ve interviewed said “Yes, yes you know it got much more radical” and other people have said the radical incidence here was very small you know and insignificant in the 70s late 60s and 70s. What’s your take on, you know sort of radical movement here in Charlotte and people who espouse you know sort of ideas of black power and radicalism, was that a big, a big piece of the pie here?

JF: I would, I would never describe it as a big piece of the pie. The truth of the matter is that Charlotte never had a true radical movement. There was some people who had ideas that would have been termed radical at the time but that was never on a cohesive radical movement that took place in Charlotte. Now let me put that in context. It has always been true throughout history and certainly throughout the modern civil rights movement that younger people, students have always been more in favor of change.

MD: Like you in high school.

JF: Exactly, so and that’s how the sit-in movement took place. Many of the people who supported Martin Luther King and his movement and Montgomery were young people, so and the whole Black Power Movement if you can call it a movement was comprised mainly of younger people. Students, those who were just beyond student years, so it’s always been true and probably always will be true that younger people are more oriented towards change than older people and that’s true not just among African Americans but among anybody. You look back at the ‘60s and you know change was in the air and the people who were trying to bring about that change were students, young people white and black. The take over of buildings during that late 60s and early 70s were always by young people. So you have the younger people who are always more restless than older people and who always want to see more change than older people, and that’s a good thing because if you relied only on people who get older and are more accepting of things then you don’t have the kind of change that I think you’d need to have constantly in order for a society to move on. So in Charlotte you had some younger people who felt that things were not moving fast enough and they wanted to move them forward. Ben Chavis was among that group he went to UNC out here, had a group that called itself Black Panthers, they weren’t really Black Panthers at the time that’s what they called themselves at the time and they did some marching wanted to bring about change. You had TJ Reddy and Jim Grant and Charles Parker who were young people in the community who wanted to see change in the community I don’t describe either one of them as a, as a radical. They were young people and they wanted to see more change take place in the community, they wanted to see the community come together more and have things take place quickly. They were a part of a whole cadre of young people all over the country and all over the state who wanted to bring about change and they were also part of a group of a young people who were targeted by governmental authorities to, to silence them. They, in, in the course of doing the Charlotte Three case and the Raleigh Two case and the Wilmington Ten case, all of which came about in 1972, we discovered some documents that were in the files of the federal government and which were available to state authorities as well which identified people like Ben Chavis and Jim Grant and TJ and others as being people who needed to be stopped by whatever means necessary it was part of the ( ) tell program that the federal government had going at the time. The federal government and state governments as well thought that these young people had much more power than they actually had. So there was a lot of fear about that and it was that kind of fear I believe that lead to the Charlotte Three being prosecuted for burning a barn when there were only two witnesses that they had were young people themselves that had been caught and prosecuted by the government, Alfred Hood and David Washington, both of whom had all kinds of problems themselves. But it was interesting to me that they were the two witnesses in the Charlotte Three case who claimed that the Charlotte Three were involved in the ( ) there was no other evidence, no physical evidence no nothing to tie the Charlotte Three to the case.

MD: So do you think that they were being targeted because of this, specifically in Charlotte too, I mean is there a connection in your mind, I guess this is what I’m asking about, this incredible change going on, this white resistance to busing and then change in terms of you know equality for blacks and whites, I mean does, does this play directly into that, or is this more just a whole sort of a general change in time, I mean, you know, the connection between the two is there one in your mind?

JF: Between what now let me be sure--?

MD: The Charlotte Three case, them being shot down in the midst of the Swann decision being carried out and--

JF: Well I, I think you have to look at all of it as being connected to what was taking place at the time, there was tremendous change going on, the school case itself was not the only catalyst for change but it was as much a reflection of change as it was a, a change itself. There was change everywhere. People were getting jobs that they’d never had before. Black students were going to schools that they hadn’t been able to go to before, not just a public school but also the colleges were changing //at that time--//

MD: //Like UNC Charlotte--//

JF: Exactly, government was beginning to change because people were beginning to get elected to offices, people were getting jobs in government so change was everywhere. At, during this period of time, and there’s no one thing you could say, that, that made all the difference they were all connected they were all related and they all brought about fears on the part of the white community. People always fear change, and particularly, particularly if they feel that that change affects them directly, well white people, I’m speaking generically right now, felt that this was a change that was going to be displeasing for them. They had to give up some of the power that they had, give up some of the lifestyles that they had because everything was going to change now. So that led to fears, fears that were generally unfounded, that was going to be changed but it wasn’t the kind of change in this country in this community that you would see in a place like South Africa where blacks were in the majority and you could talk about real political and economic change. We weren’t talking about that here, we were simply talking about a greater share in, in economics, a greater share in politics a greater share in power. It wasn’t taking away power from and value, it was just sharing power with the group that had been dis-empowered historically. So it was that context and which you have to look at the Charlotte Three case and the overreaction that the police and prosecutors had in that case to TJ Reddy, Jeff Grant and Charles Parker. You also have to look at the way in which that was done where they had these two witnesses that they were using not just in Charlotte but also in Raleigh they were trying to prosecute Jim Grant and Ben Shavers and others that were identified as young radical leaders at the time. So it was this fear of change and the reaction to that change through that fear that led to the Charlotte Three case. And the Wilmington Ten case and Raleigh Two case, all cases had a number at that time.

MD: Yeah (laughs

JF: But it wasn’t because of any criminal activity that Grant was engaging or TJ was engaging in or did Charles Parker--

MD: You said their radicalism what I think I hear you saying and tell me if I’m wrong was rather benign I mean in terms of--

JF: In terms of what was happening in, in the country generally sure.

MD: Or were people following them here?

JF: I mean yeah, I mean it was, it was never a huge movement, there was some young people and a few older people who felt that in order to bring about change you really did have to push all the way to the limits and you really did have to be prepared to, to take physical action to bring about it. Not to harm anybody but, but it get in arms way if you needed to, to change. There were others who thought that it should be done more gradually and that it should all be done through the institutions that we established and then there was no place from mass protests, no place for marching in the streets doing that sort of thing so it was, it was a difference in tactics. But I would not consider either, either of these three people to be radicals in the true sense of the word, radicals in the sense that you want to just change the whole establishment--

MD: Immediately--

JF: Throw out everything right now and put in a new order today. It was never that, it was always the feeling that they were too slow and they were, they was always moving too slow. They are right now, and somebody has to say it’s moving too slow it needs to move faster and that was a role that the Charlotte Three had to play and when one deed that you always pay a price for that.

MD: Do you feel that they, how was that story perceived or played out by the white community in Charlotte? I mean did that impact that way people felt about school desegregation or giving up part of their share I mean. I’m just wondering if that sense of, of well here are people who you know are trying to take more, do more in, in the true sense of the word of being a radical, did that have an impact on how people, the white community felt about members of the African American community, or were all these changes that were coming part in parts hand in hand.

JF: Well I think it fed their fears, because fear feeds itself and if you have a fear that you are giving up something and you’re losing something and then you have an identified target that’s causing that to happen , then yes I think that it did have an effect on peoples attitudes because I think there were people who had in their minds that there was this group of young radicals out here who wanted to change the whole order anyway, and then when charges were brought against the Charlotte Three and others, that sort of legitimised their fears. And made them even more fearful. Because someone was accusing people in a tangible way of trying to destroy the existing order and that in turn led to a greater reaction to things like school desegregation, workplace desegregation, political desegregation, economic desegregation I think you did have some of that. It’s not quantifiable in the sense that you can say, this happened and that happened and, and that happened.

MD: Right.

JF: It was all there, it was all related sure, of course. That’s what happened, but at the same time I think that people were becoming educated about the lengths to which authorities would go to protect the existing order from their perceived attacks on it, and the criminal process I think was distorted through the prosecutions of some of these folks. But I think it also opened peoples eyes to the fact that the criminal justice system could be misused against civil rights activists because that is in fact what took place. (pause) But when you got to know any one of them personally then you would realize that these are not folks who were bent on violence, these were not folks who were trying to take over, these were not people who were bent on destroying society as it existed, they were serious about bringing about change but individually they were committed to, to changing in a way that actually preserved the institutions that we have. That’s one reason I don’t see them as being radical in a real sense because the radicals want to throw out everything you got and establish this new order and nothing you have is worth preserving so they certainly were not radicals in that sense at all.

MD: Now in terms of the reactivation of Swann which I would be remiss not to ask you and talk with you about it

JF: Sure we can talk about that.

MD: I think I know the answer to this but I’m not going to assume--

JF: All right.

MD: Were you surprised when the suit was filed about the magnet schools here in Charlotte, about using race as a way that was an identifier or a way you know for the magnet schools to determine in the lottery system who, who was admitted. Did that surprise you that, the, the whole issue of this was coming up again?

JF: No it was no surprise, it was no surprise that people would continue to resist and when ( ) different places you had people who were, white people, who looking only at their individualized circumstances, wanted to see any consideration of race in the operation of the schools removed. So in a sense I suppose it was inevitable that someone was going to attack it, we didn’t know that it would be in the magnet school that it would come, but we knew that it would come at some point. Now it’s, it’s important to understand that, that the, the suit that was filed addressed only the magnet schools, the case was expanded to include the question of whether Charlotte Mecklenburg was unitary.

MD: To reinstate the whole Swann issue.

JF: Yes, and we were the ones who moved the court to reopen Swann because we saw in this attack on the magnet schools signing program the broader issue which was the whole issue of desegregation of the schools and the manner in which that desegregation had been brought about and was being maintained.

MD: So over time--

JF: So we felt that that case was an attack on the principles of Swann and we said that in court and that’s what brought Swann into play.

MD: Back into the, being re, being reinstated.

JF: Yeah,

MD: So you--

JF: Now I should mention to you that, even at, as that was happening we, I saw we, my law firm and some people in the community were doing our own study and preparation at that time to reopen Swann because of the re-segregation that was already taking place that I mentioned to you before. Strategically we were trying to figure out how best to do it, because we knew that if this case got into hostile hands in the courts that it could, it could backfire and that’s what happened. It did get into hostile hands and it did backfire at that level, although the case is still on appeal. And we expected to turn it around.

MD: Were you I mean, seeing you‘ve kind of eloquently talked about how you’ve seen people come together, people are working together, people are going to school together, there is some positive change that you see taking place in Charlotte because of Swann.

JF: Oh yes.

MD: So I guess I’m thinking, this wasn’t a surprise, I mean are you in terms of this change that you think Swann has ushered in and been successful in doing something positive for Charlotte, did it mean something to you that here it is coming up again. Do you think that the resistance has still continued, you don’t see change, a significant change over time?

JF: I see a significant change sure, but what is disturbing is that you come back 30 years after you’ve been making an effort to bring about a real change, and you find that the change has not been anything close to what it should have been. And don’t expect to have to fight these battles over again. And in many ways when you look at the schools now and you look at the achievement levels, or the achievement gap and you see that not a whole lot has changed, because that hasn’t been overcome, it’s still almost as wide now as it was 30 years ago. You look at what’s happening with busing in the schools and you see that it’s still being unfairly imposed on African American students. You look at the resources in the schools and you find that the schools that have become over time, largely black or majority black are the schools that have the poorer resources, are the schools that are in the worse facilities, are the schools where the teachers are not as experienced as they are at other schools. So you find that this inferior education that you were trying to change back in the late 60s and early 70s has found it’s way back into the system and the hope at the time was that that would’ve changed and you wouldn’t have to fight that battle again. There would have been other battles you have to fight to further what you’d started in the process, but not to have to re-fight the old battles and we find ourselves having to re-fight some of the old battles--

MD: The blame, who takes the ( ) for it ( )

JF: Well the school board has to take the ( ) and the community, because it was the school board’s obligation to carry out the orders of the court. If those orders had been carried out then you wouldn’t have the kind of inequalities in the schools today that you find today because that would have changed. So I think the ( ) has to be placed squarely where it is on the school board because it’s their job to do that and to look after it. Now people get confused and they think it’s the job of the black community to desegregate the schools. It’s not, and the reality is that we’ve always been the ones that’d have to move it along, we shouldn’t have to, it should be the school board. The school board has a constitutional obligation to do that. Now we know the way our institutions work it that we always have to make these entities carry out their constitutional obligation, but I don’t have any qualms about where the responsibility lies, it’s on the school board, it’ s not on the black children, its not on the black parents, its not on the black community, its on the school board. It’s their job of course, they declared it to be their job, they're supposed to do it, and until they do it they have a responsibility to carry out.

MD: Do you lend any credence to this kind of notion that you know I read the paper editorials here while this is going on, I guess this is kind of like talking about current events right but in history in a sense but I hear people say, these people aren’t from Charlotte, they didn’t go through--

JF: The ones who brought--

MD: And they, they don’t live here anymore. They weren’t from here, they didn’t go through this experience initially with Swann they’re outsiders people call them, does that matter? Did that make a difference in impact on why you think this happened, I mean, I know I’m just kind of like putting the reinstatement Swann and this altogether but eventually is going to be tangled you know together in the same piece.

JF: Well, I don’t think you could put the blame on outsiders its not an outside issue. It’s not an outsider issue, they who the Capacchione people were from California I think and they came in and stayed a short while and then went back. But you can’t look at this and say well this is all they’re doing it’s not--they weren’t here in 1969 when people were resisting or 1965 when people were resisting and in 1971 when they were resisting,, and throughout the 70s it wasn’t outsiders it was the people who were right here in Charlotte who were resisting. Now Charlotte has changed and as Charlotte has changed and become more of a cosmopolitan place, then we have more people here who come from all over, so I , I, I think it’s, it’s a copout to say it’s the outsiders who are responsible for this. The truth of the matter is that a number of people are taking the attitude that it’s all over now and what we did 30 years ago we don’t need to continue to do today and that we need to forget about race and try to operate the schools without considerations of race. And you can’t do that because you’ve got a society where race still defines where we live, jobs we have, where we go to school. Race still defines all of that and as long as you have a society that has a race conscience then you can’t have a society that is race neutral in the way that it approaches race issues. The other thing is Judge Potter is not an outsider and he’s the one who entered the order that ultimately made this change. So it’s not a question of outsiders it’s a question of attitudes that haven’t changed, an attitude that somehow we can forget race and operate as though we don’t have a racial history. And we do have a racial history and we cannot expect with the racial history we have in Charlotte, the racial history we have in the nation itself, that you can change 400 years of racial history in 25 or 30 years. It takes longer than that. But people don’t want to take the time and make the effort and give the commitment that you have to have if you’re going to bring about true change. As I see it the segregation case even with the changes that it brought about only began to scratch the surface. There are deep seeded racial feelings both black and white that are a result of the whole history of racism that we’ve had in this country beginning with the slave trade and coming through history, and that’s--and we won’t admit that this business of trying to change that for a few years you know 20 or 30 or 40 years in history is nothing when you look at that against what 400 years of history have done to us. So people want to see this over with but they want to see it over with in a way that they just walk away from it. Not in a way that brings about true change. We need to take a break OK.

MD: Mr. Ferguson tell me about what you think are sort of the challenges that face Charlotte in it’s future. What do you think about race relations for Charlotte and its future?

JF: Well just to be trite about it, you know, you go back to the old Virginia Slim commercial “you’ve come a long way baby but you still got a long way to go.” I think that’s where we are. I, you may or may not know that I chair the community building initiative here in Charlotte. For a number of years, we started that I think back in 1997 or 8.

MD: And what was it’s purpose?

JF: It really was formed to address racial tensions that grew out of a series of police shootings by white police officers of black people in Charlotte. Two involved women, two black women were shot by white police officers. One involved a black male as I recall it. Now that was part of a long history, police killings of blacks that had taken place in Charlotte, I remember being involved in one back in the late 60s over in Freedom Park, a young fellow named we used to call him Little Wolf, I can’t even tell you his real name right now but he was killed in the park by a white officer. So I’ve been involved in this whole issue about black white police relations during the whole period of time I’ve been in Charlotte. At any even racial tensions had risen significantly in Charlotte, beginning with the shooting of Wendy Thompson back in 1995 I believe is when--

MD: Is that what happened in the Cherry neighborhood?

JF: No, the Cherry neighbor was before that. Wendy Thompson was a black woman who was in an automobile accident out here on Nations Ford Road, sitting in her car, killed by a white police officer who claimed that she was dragging him as he leaned inside of her car. But I remember the Cherry shooting that took place I think several years before that, but at any event there were a number of, three shootings which took place like within a period of a year or so and there was rising tension in the African American community over the shooting, because you didn’t have any corresponding situation where in the white community the same thing was happening. All but white people the same thing was happening. So the community building initiative was started as a result, in an effort to address those tensions and the key things from blowing apart and I served as the first chair of that group. And what we did was to bring the community together to have a dialog about it. And in 1997 I believe it was December 1997 we had a big community meeting up at the Civic Center where people came together to talk about race. And that effort has continued elements of the, of the right, I’ll call it, have refused to come into the process because they’re much more comfortable criticizing the process than participating in it. Eventually they will come in because eventually if they’re serious about wanting to see change they’ll have to, but I, I see in the future continuing racial tensions for some period of time. I see in the future continued friction with desegregation of the schools because people are going to flirt with this notion of neighborhood schools. And that’s really what this new plan is all about. It’s not--

MD: The new choice place from CMS--

JF: New choice place it’s really about neighborhood schools. And if it goes into effect which I hope it doesn’t then what is likely to happen is that you will have re-segregation of the schools and initially people are going to be happy with that because people think they want to be in their neighborhoods and not have to deal with, with the larger world. But pretty soon it will become clear that these re-segregation patterns are leading to the same issues and the same problems that we had before. And that is inequality and when you’re dealing with inequality you’re going to have unrest, you’re going to have tension so I’m afraid that we’re going to see some of that in the future until people begin to see finally that it can’t work that way and the only way we can have the kind of community that works together is to have people living together and going to school together and interacting with people at every level. That will come, but it’s not going to come quickly. It will come in time. We’re still going to continue with some of the economic inequality that we see in spite of the progress that you heard me talk about. You still got a situation where if you measure black wealth against white wealth there’s a huge disparity. If you look at who the people are who own the resources in this community they’re not black they’re white and some redistribution of that wealth is going to have to take place--people start talking about redistribution of wealth people sort of recall and the say “Oh you talk about some communist plot where you do this, that” but you're not, you’re only talking about the kind of society you have to have if you’re going to have stability peace and tranquility. And the society has got to be where you don’t have one group who is in control of the resources and the power and the capital and the wealth and another group that’s out. It’s gotten a little bit confused now because you have other groups that are coming to the community. Back in the 60s and early 70s you were talking about black and white. Now we’re talking about black and brown and yellow, red, white. Because you have tremendous increase in Latino community, you have an increase not as dramatic in the Asian community and other groups that are coming in. You see now all the problems were having with all the middle eastern segment of community. Where people have a biased expression in various ways their biases against middle easterners, Muslims and all of that’s got to be addressed in some way. It, it comes back though ultimately to the issue of black white relations. I say that because my observation has been that in our society. I’m not talking about just Charlotte but America. Every group eventually gets treated as white except African Americans. We’ve integrated ethnic groups from everywhere.

MD: As the story had said they’d become white.

JF: Yes, they become white eventually. That hasn’t happened in the African American Community and won’t so you’re going to have to deal with it at that level. The whole issue of the middle eastern thing that grew out of September 11th will be around for time but that’s not going to have the same enduring impact as the issue of black white relations have had for the past 400 years or so. So we’re going to continue to struggle with that until we get to where we need to be. It won’t happen during my lifetime. It won’t even happen during yours. It probably won’t happen during my children and my grandchildren’s, but change will continue to take place it will be incremental change. Eventually we’ll get to a society that’s more equal, that’s more diverse, that’s more integrated than we have now, but its not going to come quickly and its not going to come easily.

MD: Knowing what you know about Charlotte, your law of history in Charlotte, issues of race and inequality and social justice, do you think Charlotte will get there any faster or slower that any other part of the country or city because of its characteristics, its history its--or do you think, you know, it will just be reflective of change with the rest of the country. Is Charlotte in any way unique in your mind. Has it been or do you think it will be in this process of, you know equality or change, that you see eventually 400 years or whatever from now happening. You know your assessment just kind of Charlotte.

JF: Well Charlotte is unique and it’s not unique. It’s unique in the sense that every place is unique. It happens differently in every community. And it happens, and when I say it the change happens differently in every community and that’s in part due, due in part to the make-up of a given, or the particular community that one might be addressing. So in that sense yes Charlotte has its own unique characteristics and those characteristics shape the outcome of Charlotte’s racial history. It shapes the progress of that history, but if you’re talking about unique in the sense that we’ve got something special here in Charlotte that’s going to make us do it better and quicker than other people, no I don’t think we have that. I do think that as communities go, that there’s a reason to be hopeful that, that Charlotte will get it done and get it done quicker than some communities, not as quick as others. The history has been that Charlotte by in large has done it without a lot of violence. And I think that makes it possible to move things forward a little quicker. It’s not the only community that’s done it that way so I won’t say its unique from all the communities. I think Charlotte on the scale, of how communities deal with this, probably will get it done quicker than most communities. But there are going to be some communities that are more advanced than Charlotte, Southern communities I’m talking about. So I don’t think we get very far about trying to single Charlotte out and say that its unique and because of its unique characteristics its going to deal with it this way and because we dealt with the schools we’re going to deal with other stuff. No that’s not going to happen.

MD: And even in light of you know the argument of being pro-business and wanting to make it go smoothly, and I mean you’ve made the comment that sort of lost every history, was indeed that gloss over it, but you’ve, you’ve seen steps of resistance all along.

JF: I’ve seen it, and I have no reason to think that its all going to suddenly change and Charlotte’s going to somehow get the job done quicker and better than other similar situated communities. The pro business aspect of it is both good and bad. Business does what’s good for business, so I believe that Charlotte will do what’s good for business, to the extent that it is you know a business oriented kind of community. But business has never gotten the job done for, business has been part of the retardation of progress because business looks after itself, so if, if its good for business to get the job done, then business will do what it can to get the job done but if its not good for business or business perceives that its not good for business then it may not. I mean when I look at the current controversy I’m not sure that the business community is actually moving us forward right now. Because what the business community wants to see more than anything else is stability not change. And in order to get this done we got to have change. What business wants right now as far as I can tell is they just want to get a plan in effect that gets rid of the controversy, well that’s not necessarily going to solve the problem. Even if it temporarily gets rid of some of the controversy. Business supports this pro-choice plan that are the choice whatever you call it now, and they support it not because its going to ultimately bring about equality for the people who haven’t had it before, they’re supporting it because they’re hoping it will end the controversy.

MD: And what about in the earlier sort of installment of the Swann saga, did business, was there an issue about wanting to make it go smoothly, the whole idea, you know that’s what people have argued and said do you agree with that?

JF: Well business comes in at the point where it looks like there’s going to be disturbance in a community that might affect business. But business does not come in, in the sense that its proactive and decides now we’ve got a problem here of inequality. We’ve got a problem here of distribution of resources being biased and unfair. We’ve got people in our community who are being left out and who need to be included. Business doesn’t start at that point and say “now we need to change all of this.” Business sort of comes in and says, “there’s controversy in the community that’s bad for business, we need to address the controversy.” Well that doesn’t necessarily get at the root causes of the controversy, that gets into the symptoms

MD: The surface--

JF: The surface aspect of it. So no I don’t place any, any real, all of my eggs in the business basket not at all. And I think that’s a mistake to assume that business is going to somehow solve all the problems. Business as I said will do what’s good for business and we have to hope that business perceives that as being addressing solving of these problems. But the change is ultimately going to come in the attitudes of the people who are affected by it. The parents, the consumers, the teachers, the students themselves they’re going to be the ones who will ultimately have to bring about this change and its going to take some time for them to get there and in their while this time is being taken you got to have the people who are true agents for change and those people who look at it and say this is wrong, this is politically wrong, its morally wrong, its economically wrong and it needs to change because its wrong. And it needs to change because we can do better than this and it needs to change because fundamentally there is something wrong here. Not because its going to be good for business to change, not because its going to mean a more stable community if we change but because it, it’s the right thing to do. Have everybody in this community have the full benefits of what the community has to offer. So business is simply one aspect of that and there are many other aspects that affect it--

MD: And now that you face this issue yet again, or now that you are continuing to face this issue,

JF: Sure.

MD: Either way you want to look at it

JF: Yeah.

MD: Have you had in your experience, has this issue had more support from members of the white community than before in the 70s?

JF: Yes and No. It’s had more support in the sense that, as a matter of principal or supporting the principle of equality, people support the principle of equality now. Before they didn’t because they didn’t have to. They could say, things were working fine as they are and all we can do is a little bit of change, and they didn’t recognize that the principle of equality itself was a principal that was worth supporting, now they do. And that’s good and more people now support that principle than don’t. The problem though, is the annunciation of the principal is not the solution of the problem, it’s just the beginning of addressing it. When we talk about what measures have to take place in order to bring, in order to give reality to the principal that’s where the support wanes and waxes because people will say I believe in equality as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me--

MD: Or not in our back yard mentality--

JF: As long a I don’t have to give up anything, or as long as I don’t have to sacrifice anything for I believe in racial equality and I believe everybody ought to have an equal opportunity. But if you’re not willing to put that principle into practice, even if it means making some sacrifices, then you don’t really believe in the principal. You believe in convenience and expedience. So when I look at Charlotte now, and I look at how you get strong support for the neighborhood school in the white community they’re not supporting equality in any real sense. They’re supporting what is convenient for them. They’re supporting what it is they think gives their job the best education. Without looking at the community as a whole. Whether or not you have more people now who are willing to, to make the sacrifice for the community at large than you had back in 1979, ’69 I don’t know. I don’t know.

MD: Thank you very much.

JF: Thank you.

MD: I appreciate your time.

JF: I appreciate your time and I appreciate what you are doing.

MD: Thank you.

JF: Keep me posted on the progress of this so that I know--

End of Interview
Groups: