The Civil Rights movement for African Americans in the 1960s called for an end to discrimination in voting, education, accommodations, housing and in other areas. In North Carolina and the nation, blacks turned to public persuasion and to civil disobedience to bring change to their lives and to change the world.
North Carolina was a proving ground for the Civil Rights movement and leaders.
In fact, the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr. in the "I Have a Dream" speech are known the world over. However, few people know that he used a phrase about a dream in Rocky Mount in November 1962, long before the August 1963 delivery of the speech in the March on Washington. Near the conclusion of the November 1962 speech in Rocky Mount were the lines:
"I have a dream that one day right here in Rocky Mount, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will meet at the table of brotherhood, knowing that one God brought man to the face of the Earth. I have a dream tonight that one day my little daughter and my two sons will grow up in a world not conscious of the color of their skin, but only conscious of the fact that they are members of the human race. . . ."
A North Carolina highway historical marker dedicated in 2007 in Rocky Mount commemorates the King speech given there. It is one of nearly 1,600 of the familiar black and silver markers that dot the roadside to recognize people, places and events in an impressive body of markers statewide that share Tar Heel history on a stick.
Other events from North Carolina's Civil Rights story told in the 106 markers about African American history include the well-known Greensboro sit-ins that came to prominence after four students at the current N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University refused to leave a Woolworth's lunch counter until being served in 1960. The sit-in movement spread across the South
Soon afterwards, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed at Shaw University on Easter weekend 1960. About 150 students from 10 states met to plan nonviolent resistance to segregation. The students were the shock troops of the movement and were especially active in summer protests in Mississippi. Several national leaders, including John Lewis and Stokeley Carmichael, rose from its ranks.
The "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Ella Baker, organized a meeting that gave birth to SNCC. A highway marker dedicated to her will be erected this spring. She got funding for the conference from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which she was a founding member and also an ally of Martin Luther King.
Even before the 1960s, nearly 10,000 workers, mostly African American women, joined a union seeking better working conditions in tobacco warehouses, also known as leaf houses, where cured tobacco was processed for sale to cigarette makers. The 1946 organizing campaign, known as Operation Dixie, eventually included 30 warehouses in North Carolina and Virginia. The first vote was won in Rocky Mount, and 22 of 24 elections in North Carolina were to join the union.
In a 1947 test to the Supreme Court ruling barring racial discrimination in interstate transportation, black and white citizens known as freedom riders left Washington, D.C., on buses. Along the way of the Journey of Reconciliation, they were challenged. In Chapel Hill, four of the riders were arrested after meeting with students from area colleges, and incidents continued for weeks.
In June 1957, a sit-in at the segregated Royal Ice Cream parlor in Durham was one of several that preceded the better known1960 Greensboro sit-in. The significant impact of the Durham sit-in was that a court case resulted that tested if segregated facilities were legal. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that segregated facilities were legal.
In 1977, Pauli Murray became the first African American female Episcopal priest in the United States. She had long been an activist for African American and women's rights. A lawyer, writer and activist, she also helped to found the National Organization for Women.
The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and the N.C. Department of Transportation have joint responsibility for the marker program. The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program is one of the oldest such programs in continuous operation in the United States. More information on the application process, and a searchable list by name or category, are available at N.C. Markers.
For additional information, call (919) 807-7389. The Highway Marker Program is within the Office of Archives and History in the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.