Durham forged individual path to civil rights

Residents attend first lecture in Civil Rights Mural Project
Feb. 27, 2013 @ 09:12 PM

When one thinks of the history of the civil rights movement, one of the most indelible image may be that of Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs being turned on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala.

During that era, Durham avoided such violence because of the unique economic independence of Durham’s black community, and the strong ties between the leaders of the black and white business communities.

Benjamin Speller, former dean of N.C. Central University’s School of Library and Information Science, and Durham Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux gave an audience at Hayti Heritage Center a primer in Durham’s role in the civil rights movement during a lecture Wednesday.

Durham “has always been known to be open,” Speller said. Durham certainly had racial issues that came from segregation and Jim Crow laws, “but as always, Durham has its own spin on this,” Speller said. After the Civil War, when tobacco became king, Durham’s business leaders forged ties that prevented open racial strife, because it was bad for business and progress, Speller said.

Tobacco factory jobs, while not high paying, nevertheless allowed Durham’s African Americans to have some economic independence. Combined with the leadership of C.C. Spaulding, John Merrick and other icons of the Black Wall Street, that independence also gave Durham’s black community more leverage, eventually leading to the integration of public accommodations, Michaux said.

“We didn’t have the violence to the extent” that other cities did, he said. “The reason is the independence of the African American community.”

Michaux and Speller spoke at the first of four lectures that are part of the Durham Civil Rights History Mural Project. Muralist Brenda Miller Holmes will lead 30 Durham residents in the design and painting of a mural at 112 W. Main St. that will depict the city’s role in the civil rights movement. The mural will draw inspiration from the lecture series, which Speller organized and is leading.

The $20,000 for the mural comes from money the Durham Cultural Master Plan set aside for a pilot public art piece.

The focus of the first lecture was early Jim Crow movements and the founding of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, which is now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. C.C. Spaulding, founder of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, was instrumental in the founding of the Durham committee because his insurance agents “were his eyes and ears,” Speller said. When the committee began in 1935, organizers turned to Spaulding for leadership.

“He had all the troops they needed, all those workers at North Carolina Mutual to pull that off,” Speller said. “These were important networks.”

Michaux remembers the founding of the Durham committee. He was a young man at the time, and his father would take him to the meetings, he said.

He also recalled Martin Luther King’s visit to Durham in 1956. Michaux, a member of the Durham Professional and Business Chain, was tasked with finding a speaker for the organization’s annual trade week event. He knew of King’s work in the Montgomery bus boycott. He approached Carolina Times editor Louis Austin about his idea, and Austin urged him to call King. They reached him by phone at his church and King, who had heard about Durham’s reputation for openness, agreed to speak at the event.

“One of the things I learned from Martin [was] we need to become politically involved,” Michaux said.

While African Americans had a thriving business community in Hayti, they also could shop downtown (although under the rules of segregation). When the African American community started withholding money from downtown businesses through boycotts, things started to open up.

The civil rights movement then morphed into a movement to help the poor, Michaux said. In Durham, that effort focused on improving the plight of public housing, which “was being operated like a plantation,” he said.

To Michaux, efforts to uplift the poor “to give people who were downtrodden a sense of worth” remain a great achievement of the civil rights era.