By Marguerite Jill Dye
On Martin Luther King Day, while investigating the roots of segregation in America, I stumbled upon an article in The Atlantic that shocked even my husband, who grew up in segregated North Carolina. “Segregation Had to Be Invented” by Alana Semuels describes what occurred between the Civil War’s end and the 20th Century’s beginning that left us with endemic and structural racism.
In the late 1800s many blacks and whites in Charlotte and other parts of the South lived like “salt and pepper,” near or next door to one another, before segregation was fully enforced. In Charlotte and Atlanta, blacks could be seen in restaurants, hotels, and the theatre. Blacks could vote in most locations, and still sue companies for discrimination and win.
But the tide turned in the late 19th century when an economic depression hit. Business and landowners forced white factory workers to work for low wages under terrible conditions. Farmers lost their land and became sharecroppers. In 1894, black Republicans (a reverse of their platform today) and white Populists forced into poverty joined together to form the “fusion” ticket in opposition to the Democratic (conservative) elite and won two-thirds of the legislature. Following decades of Democrat rule, North Carolina elected a Republican (progressive) governor. The Fusion Party represented the working class, limited interest rates, allocated more funding for public schools, and placed symbols on ballots to assist illiterate voters.
White elites felt their economic power was threatened with increased taxes on corporations and railroads. They began a campaign to unite whites across incomes and to divide people by color. They named it “white supremacy” and put forth a propaganda campaign that blacks were different, less, “the other,” and that whites should not associate with blacks.
Democratic-controlled conservative newspapers like The Charlotte Observer warned that Fusion equaled “Negro Rule.” They accused blacks of being rapists and printed an editorial stating, “The Anglo Saxon Must Rule.” Their paramilitary arm, called the “Red Shirts,” used physical intimidation in black communities. When Fusion won in Wilmington, N.C. in 1898, a Red Shirt mob of 2,000 killed black citizens and forced the mayor, police chief, and board of aldermen at gunpoint to resign from their posts. The Wilmington insurrection, a.k.a. the Wilmington massacre, lasted for several days and ushered in more radical racial segregation and strategic disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.
It’s hard to believe that we’d never heard of or learned about the only successful coup d’état in America and the white supremacy it affirmed. It’s a part of our history that we must study and not forget, because history is repeating itself.
The elites, once fully back in power in 1898 with 52.8 percent of the North Carolina vote, vowed to never lose power again, by implementing various measures to disenfranchise and prevent blacks from voting, and by fostering animosity towards black voters. Other Southern states followed suit. N.C. began by implementing Jim Crow laws of segregation on trains and steamboats. Separate courtrooms, bibles, schools, stores, restaurants, and trolleys followed, making people of color appear like “outcasts and pariahs.”
In the early 1900s, segregation of black, blue-collar white, and “better class” neighborhoods began and continued with redlining in the 1930s. Highway construction in the 60s and 70s divided cities and displaced whole communities, and modern gentrification eliminates black and Latino residents from their long-time neighborhoods.
“To segregate residents, there had to first be an idea that white people were superior and that black people deserved less. That idea was a strategy pushed by elite whites to make sure they could hold onto power. It took hold and has never lost its grip,” Semuels concluded.
I was heartened by the recent marathon in Charlotte, N.C., that followed the crazily-gerrymandered voting district lines that were obviously racist. Raising awareness of the unjust methods that have rigged American elections and discouraged or prevented segments of the population from voting is imperative for creating change and equality in our nation.
I thought about the state of race in America, the distance we’ve come and the distance still to go. Once again I was surprised to discover a short documentary film about young Martin Luther King’s time spent in Connecticut, created by Simsbury High School students and their Free Library. I found it inspiring and hopeful that teenage students of a similar age would be the ones to reveal King’s little known Connecticut experience.
Did you know that two summers picking tobacco leaves in Connecticut for Cullman Bros. and his exposure to the freer, desegregated life in the North influenced the future of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in America? Upon his early acceptance into Morehouse College in 1944 (having skipped two grades of high school), young Martin, at age 15, joined Morehouse students to spend two summers in Simsbury, Connecticut.
During both world wars, local white tobacco pickers in Connecticut were needed to work in munitions plants (where they earned higher wages), and the additional migrant tobacco workers from the South, Pennsylvania, and the Caribbean had returned home due to war. More restrictive immigration laws made it difficult to replace them, so another group of workers was needed. The president of the Connecticut Tobacco Co. came up with the solution in 1911 by identifying an alternative and reliable summer labor source, which lasted over 50 years. Black college and high school students from the South were eager for the opportunity for summer employment.
During his two summers in Connecticut, in ’44 and ’47 at ages 15 and 18, King often led the students in worship in their dorm. Other Sundays they were free to attend the all-white church in Simsbury, or the black churches in Hartford, where they walked to save the train fare. The students called Connecticut “the promised land.”
Of young Martin’s train ride home, he later wrote that “it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation” and difficult to understand why he had to move to a Jim Crow car in the nation’s capital for the trip to Atlanta. “The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience in the North helped to shape his life mission and contribution to civil rights in America. Over a period of only 13 years, Dr. King forced the country to address segregation. His leadership led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was presented with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. His assassination in 1968 was truly an American tragedy.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.