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Civil rights leaders reflect on Charlottesville segregation 50 years after King speech
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Civil rights leaders reflect on Charlottesville segregation 50 years after King speech

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took to the podium to speak of his dream of a country without racial barriers and with economic freedom and justice for all, civil rights activists – and related violence – had already brought the point home to Charlottesville.

King’s August 1963 speech is credited in curricula throughout American schools with creating a new landscape free of segregation: Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Although his speech brought the idea home to millions watching on television, local restaurants and business were already desegregating, civil rights leaders recall.

“I’m sure it had an impact nationally, but I don’t remember a strong reaction in the community to the speech,” said Paul Gaston, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, and a local civil rights activist in the 1960s. “That’s because we’d had a wakeup call a few months earlier at Buddy’s Restaurant that had a definite impact.”

“In 1953, 60 years ago, I came back home with a wife – a Charlottesville lady – and two daughters,” recalled Eugene Williams, whose civil rights efforts in town began with his arrival, including fighting for school desegregation, sit-ins at restaurants, boycotts and protests. “Just about instantly, I got the feeling most of the black people, and a few white people, were tired of Charlottesville’s racial segregation and discrimination from the founding date in 1762.”

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech came after a decade of marches, protests and lobbying by civil rights activists against legalized segregation, known as Jim Crow.

Voting restrictions, from taxes paid at the polls to literacy tests that kept blacks, poor whites and minorities away from the ballot box, were also targets of the civil rights movement. The movement was joined by labor leaders in lobbying Congress for federal legislation prohibiting the impediments.

King’s speech focused on what he called the federal government’s default on the Constitution’s promissory note of freedom for all.

“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” he told some 260,000 people assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation” he said. “And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

In his speech, King said removing laws and obstacles separating races was not enough.

“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote,” he said. “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The speech’s vision of blacks and whites living together as equals struck a chord among many Americans, analysts have said.

“I think the speech had an obvious impact because progress has been made,” said M. Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter of the NAACP. “When you look at the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, you can see the influence.”

 ***

In Charlottesville, however, the sit-in at Buddy’s Restaurant had more impact than the speech, according to local civil rights leaders of that era.

“Fifty years ago, Charlottesville was a closed society,” Gaston said. “Theaters, motels, restaurants, public drinking fountains and restrooms were segregated. It took protests and violence to open those up.”

Several times civil rights leaders led protests at local lunch counters and restaurants, but an incident at the popular Buddy’s on Emmet Street was the catalyst for the most change.

According to the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a nonprofit, heritage organization operating in four states to promote history and tourism, members of the local NAACP and Human Relations Council met at Buddy’s for lunch.

They were not served and were ushered out of the restaurant at closing. They were not granted entrance the next day. Standing outside, the protesters were set upon and hit several times by assailants.

Gaston, who was among the protesters, was punched several times while trying to call police from a pay phone.

“It created a significant reaction in the community,” Gaston recalled. “Other restaurants and businesses were shocked by the violence and they didn’t want protests at their establishments, and they desegregated.”

Protesters caught flak from some whites, including the editor of The Daily Progress, Gaston recalled.

“He said that Buddy was a respected and well-liked member of the community, and we said that was our point,” Gaston said. “If respected and well-liked members of the community were discriminating, what message did that send to others?”

Although other businesses integrated their clientele, Buddy’s did not. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the restaurant closed rather than integrate.

The changes didn’t come without grief.

“It captivated people’s attention, but there were demonstrations from people opposed to us, and my tires were slashed in the middle of the night,” Gaston said.

***

Civil rights leaders say that much has changed, but more must be done. Charlottesville has seen race-related violence over the years, violence that led to a community-wide dialogue on race and the creation of a human rights commission.

“There’s been obvious progress, but it doesn’t appear the progress has been sustained,” Turner said. “The increasing numbers of people incarcerated, the policy of stop-and-frisk by police, the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions restricting the Voting Rights Act -- I think we have to be very aware and vigilant just to maintain that progress.”

“[King’s] dream has benefited very little for Charlottesville’s black middle income and low-income people because anywhere you look, anywhere you walk, discrimination to blacks can be seen,” said Williams, whose family joined a lawsuit in the 1950s to desegregate Charlottesville schools and who has pushed for civil rights ever since.

“Anytime groups of blacks are talking, they cannot help talk about the obvious discrimination they witness at the workplace,” Williams said. “The most obvious is at a workplace that hires one black among 10, 20 or 30 white workers. That workplace discriminates. That same place has one unhappy employee --  that’s the one black person.”

Williams said talking about prejudice and race issues won’t fix them. He said people must take personal responsibility and that includes successful people returning to their roots to provide examples for the next generation.

“I hope there was a speaker or speakers at Saturday’s ‘I Have a Dream’ rally saying to our professional blacks to come home to the black neighborhoods where they are needed, and will be warmly welcomed,” said Williams, who continued to live in predominately black neighborhoods during a successful career as an insurance agent and landlord. “No more do black audiences want to hear from professional blacks that ‘I give credit to you for where I am.’ Come home and be part of the future.”

“We have to create leaders in our community,” Turner said. “We have to look into the mirror more. People don’t have to wait for the leadership or elected officials to do something. If Dr. King had waited, we’d still be waiting.”

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