A fitting salute to protest

Feb. 27, 2014 @ 04:51 PM

Just over a half-century ago, well within the lifetime of many reading this, the South and Durham were still enmeshed in the shameful throes of Jim Crow segregation.

Perhaps nowhere was that more vividly in view than at the city-owned Carolina Theatre, leased at that point as a movie house.

For many of this city’s residents, the still-opulent – if somewhat faded – majesty of the ground-floor orchestra seats were off limits.  So was the first balcony.

Black patrons had to enter by a side door – not the main entrance – and climb 97 steps to the second balcony.

The protests that eventually brought an end to that segregation were among the most significant events of the civil rights struggle that culminated here and across the country in the 1960s. They attracted attention with their round-robin approach – African-American patrons would line up to buy a ticket to the main seating area and as each one was denied, he or she would return to the end of the line so that they presented a continuous stream of rejected purchasers.

Nearly 51 years ago, in July 1963, the Carolina Theatre – prodded by the protestors and encouraged by then-Mayor Wense Grabarek – desegregated its seating.

Now, an exhibit outside that second floor balcony will celebrate those protests. “Confronting Change” will be on permanent display – the second of three planned exhibits on the landmark theater’s history. The first, “A Century Downtown,” told the history of the building itself and the artists who performed there, starting with its heyday as a live performance venue in the 1920s. It opened in 2011, as the theater was completing a major renovation project.

The third exhibit, “Restoring Hope,” will honor the volunteers who saved the theater from demolition – and in many ways marked the first wave of the historic preservation efforts that have transformed downtown.

The protest exhibit will ensure “everyone who comes in this building knows what took place there,” theater CEO Bob Noceck said Wednesday at an event hosted by exhibit sponsor PNC for those involved with the advisory committee for the project.

Members of that committee are among those who can bear witness to the theater’s segregated days.

Carl Whisenton was one.

He didn’t participate in the theater protests, he said Wednesday, “but I do remember going up those steps to see a movie here.” And he remembers that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., at White Rock Baptist Church in 1960, “encouraged us to keep on and to march” to end segregation.

Walter Jackson, another committee member, also recalled the segregated theater.

“The indignities inflicted on African-Americans at that time were almost mind boggling,” he said. “But we stuck together and it was worth it.”

It is important that, as those days fade further into our past, we be reminded that a society once inflicted those indignities without compunction – and that we commemorate those who made this a better society for all of us, oppressors and oppressed alike, by bringing them to an end.