Durham’s civil rights movement entrepreneurs

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 08:20 AM


There is a story behind the story of sit-ins which involves two social entrepreneurs who formed a friendship in 1949 while attending college in Durham.

By the time I arrived in 1989, one of these entrepreneurs, Floyd McKissick, had passed away soon after being appointed a judge by Republican Gov. Jim Martin.

I met the other entrepreneur, Doug Moore long after he had moved away when I answered the phone in my office soon after my arrival in Durham and heard him say, “Hi, I’m in town and I understand you’ve been asking about me.”

For several weeks this time each year, the news media fall prey to a narrative it created around a sit-in that occurred in Greensboro.  More than three decades after the notion was debunked by researchers and scholars, reports still often mislabel it as the first or most significant.

But any understanding of the Greensboro event requires knowing more about Durham, a community known for entrepreneurs since its founding, including by the 1880s, people of color, both those descended from free blacks and those from former slaves.

New research published last month in the American Sociological Review points to the nexus that makes some communities, such as Durham, stand out as ecosystems for entrepreneurs, both homegrown and as a magnet to draw them from elsewhere.

One investigator on that study,  Martin Ruef at Duke University, is also responsible for a groundbreaking analysis in 2012 comparing the valuation of black labor in the South from 1831 through the years immediately after slavery was abolished.

The two Durham social entrepreneurs at the heart of the sit-in movement were drawn here to further their education from roots in Asheville and Hickory.

After going on to achieve advanced degrees in law and divinity, McKissick and Moore reunited in Durham as neighbors in the summer of 1955, in the tumultuous weeks after the Supreme Court published its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education  in which separate facilities based on race  were declared inherently unequal under the Constitution.

These two Durham social entrepreneurs anticipated that the South overall would be reactionary, often enabled by the black middle class, perhaps because some had built businesses based on separation or because some just feared rocking the boat. Neither Floyd B. McKissick nor Rev. Douglas Moore were strangers by that time to “direct action.”  Both had been inspired by Pauli Murray, who had been raised in Durham.

They were also influenced by the book "From Slavery To Freedom," which had been researched and written in part in Durham by John Hope Franklin in the years before he settled here.

In 1943, Murray had published a powerful article in New York entitled  Negroes Are Fed Up and then participated in a demonstration at Howard University in 1944 before publishing States’ Laws On Race and Color in 1951, used as a “bible” during Brown vs. Board of Education.

McKissick had been on a Freedom Ride through the South in 1948 and Moore had repeatedly refused to give up his seat on buses in several cities in North Carolina during the early 1950s, preceding the storied event in Montgomery that drew the attention of Moore’s graduate school classmate,  Martin Luther King Jr.

McKissick and Moore lobbied within the NAACP, which opposed mass action, arguing that it would take much more “direct action” than the Supreme Court case.

So, adapting Boy Scout principles, the two Durham friends quickly organized training schools in the basements of five Durham churches.

These weren’t establishment black churches such as White Rock but smaller churches such as Moore’s 25-member missionary congregation meeting in Asbury Temple United Methodist as well as Union Baptist, Mount Zion, St. Mark and St. Joseph’s.

In 1956, on the heels of the Montgomery boycott, Moore also wrote to his classmate King with the idea of forming a regional organization and pressing him to fully embrace “direct” vs. purely “pacifist” action.

In the meantime, McKissick and Moore forged links between movement centers in other states to intensify the swell of sit-ins from 1957 to 1960.

Some, such as one of the sit-ins in Durham, became significant court cases.  Students, including those involved in the later Greensboro event, as well as many from nearby states, came to Durham for training and planning.

Another key entrepreneurial innovation by McKissick and Moore is that they deepened mere linkage among movement centers into a communications network that enabled movements in Durham and other states to be coordinated.

It was this network that triggered mass reaction when a sit-in occurred in Greensboro.

Within hours, King was in Durham meeting with McKissick and Moore as a prelude to publicly endorsing mass, direct action.  At the heart of its success, culminating in the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, lay the entrepreneurial network spawned in Durham.

The story behind the story came to my attention in 1989 from reading a new book by Aldon Morris, " The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement."

Part of jump-starting Durham’s community destination marketing agency, as I did, was reclaiming its story and I quickly laced the author’s findings back into Durham’s story.  It didn’t hurt that one of my most vocal advocates became John Hope Franklin.

I also began to ask around about where I could find Rev. Douglas Moore and soon the phone rang.

More than two decades later, newbies to Durham are promoting entrepreneurial activity, a few as though it is something new, some futily hoping to export it and others fully aware that this is only the latest manifestation of an an attribute inherent to Durham’s personality.