The civil rights protests that enveloped the nation in the summer of 1964 occurred against the backdrop of the slow, uncertain progress of the legislation that would eventually become known as the Civil Rights Act. As activists across the country continued their direct assault on segregation, many of them kept a watchful eye on the deliberations. However, while students and their allies may have been emboldened by the progress of the bill, they remained committed to maintaining the symbiotic relationship between legislation and direct action protests. Theirs was an optimism tempered with a hardcore political realism—a realism forged in towns and cities across the nation where young people marched, sat in, boycotted and confronted the machinery of racial inequality. Ultimately, for the citizens who took to the streets, the promise of democracy would only be made real by their continual mobilization, coupled with the implementation of legislation that affirmed the nation’s ideals.
Students in Wilson, North Carolina, took to the streets of this small city in the eastern portion of the state in the early 1960s. Inspired by the Greensboro Sit-ins of 1960, students at the all-black Darden High School tentatively began to confront segregation with sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s in 1961. These initial engagements grew in volume and intensity in the wake of the March on Washington in 1963. Energized by the mass mobilizations taking place across the state, the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., and their own heightened levels of expectation, student leaders expanded protests to include movie theaters, downtown restaurants, and other businesses. The protests of 1963 culminated with a march and rally held on September 1. In an event marred with sporadic violence, two hundred students launched a seven-hour demonstration that attracted close to a thousand onlookers. After marchers completed a circuit that led them in front of the city’s segregated theaters, they converged on city hall to sing freedom songs, pray, and then return to their protest route. During the action, three white men were arrested for inciting to riot, and two black students were charged with fighting. City officials responded to the march by focusing on the potential for violence and encouraged the protesters to cease their actions for the “good of the citizenry.” Elizabeth Swindell, editor of the city’s newspaper, the Wilson Daily Times, placed the blame for violent outbursts squarely on the students themselves. “It is difficult to conduct non-violent demonstrations for the demonstration itself generates force,” she wrote. It was better, she suggested, to discontinue the protests altogether—in the spirit of community safety. Press and political officials struck a similar note with regard to the demonstrations: in their view, all citizens—both black and white—were better off in the absence of sustained social disruption.
When students in Wilson resumed their protest activities in the summer of 1964, they did so emboldened by the prospect of the civil rights bill that was making its way through Congress. To be sure, the potential passage of the bill did not represent the end of the struggle for equality. Rather, activists understood the bill to be the crucial additional leverage needed to bring African Americans ever closer to the mainstream of American life. As they planned their actions for the summer, knowledge of the potentially transformative legislation informed their strategic choices. They also took encouragement from the concerted efforts waged by the major civil rights organizations in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, a project that brought hundreds of white northern students to do voter registration and educational work in rural areas across the state. Freedom Summer, the progress of the civil rights legislation, and the impending presidential election dominated the headlines of newspapers across the nation that summer. But in Wilson, as in other towns across the United States, those who believed in freedom continued to struggle for it, even if their efforts did not garner any national attention.
The first volley between local authorities and activists in Wilson in the summer of 1964 gave change agents the opportunity to continue their pursuit of greater freedom. In the early part of June, James Costen, the young pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, a small church located in Elm City, invited an interracial group of northern students from New York and Pennsylvania to Wilson to paint the outside of the church. Costen and his parishioners were African American. Upon arriving in the small town north of Wilson, the group of students was approached by Robert Jones, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In a not-so-veiled threat, Jones informed the students that he could not guarantee their safety if they remained in town and attempted to paint the church alongside Negro volunteers. The northern volunteers promptly packed up and returned home.
Events in Elm City quickly took a turn toward the bizarre. On the evening of July 9, Costen received a phone call from Jones, who informed him that he had gathered approximately two hundred fifty Klan members from Wilson and Nash Counties in front of the town hall. Then, Jones offered the services of his crew to paint the church. Jones’ assortment of handymen included thirty-five expert painters equipped with forty floodlights and forty gallons of paint. They would work all night, said Jones, and finish by noon the next day. Undoubtedly flustered by the Grand Dragon’s offer to paint the rural black church, Costen demurred, maintaining that the decision to paint the church now rested in the hands of his superiors. Jones accused the pastor of “not wanting to get the church painted, but of desiring to make a racial issue by bringing in outsiders.” Jones then informed Costen that an “integrated brush” would not touch the walls of the church, and that another attempt toward that end could get somebody killed. When Mayor George Tyson found out about the presence of hundreds of Klansmen armed with paintbrushes and paint in his city, he called the sheriff’s office in Wilson. The sheriff’s office then notified the mayor that Governor Terry Sanford had just mobilized the state highway patrol. Authorities broke up the assembly around eleven that evening. “I feel safe in saying,” Costen later told a reporter, “at this point we will refuse their help.”
Elm City, a town of 729 people with a police force of two, suddenly found itself the battleground for a rapidly growing conflict between the Klan and the National Presbyterian Church. Not to be cowed by the Klan, the National Church responded by authorizing its Commission on Religion and Race to put together a second team of volunteers. The commission recruited six ministers, six laypersons, and six college students to resume the painting of the church. The groups would stay in the homes of black residents outside of Elm City. Although the mayor pledged the city’s support of the church’s efforts, the city council—in a statement drafted by Hardy Rose, Wilson’s city attorney—asked both the Church and the Klan to refrain from their activities. In addition to receiving “irreparably damaging publicity,” Elm City faced the very real threat of a large-scale confrontation. “It is believed,” concluded the board’s statement, “that, after a full consideration of the possible consequences and in the light of Christian morals, law and order and good common sense, this request will be granted.”
In a stern statement to the press, Governor Sanford informed the Grand Dragon that he needn’t worry about the safety and well being of Costen or anyone else associated with the effort to paint the church; state and local law enforcement, now thoroughly mobilized, would vigorously protect the work crews. As for Jones, Sanford stated, “the Grand Dragon can do his part by staying in Rowan County and leaving protection to those who are charged with providing it.” On the night before painting was scheduled to start, two men attempted to burn the church by dousing the steps with gasoline and lighting them on fire. Fortunately, a strong gust of wind and the patrolmen lying in wait behind the church foiled the effort. In a letter to Sanford, the Klan denied their involvement in the arson attempt and urged the governor to “take action in strengthening the security and safe keeping of the church.” “The Klan,” concluded the letter, “has no intention of burning this church or any other church in North Carolina.”
The next day, the work crew began painting the church. It was no longer a small, intimate affair. Forty patrolmen were stationed in the area, along with twenty members of the press and dozens of white spectators. The highway patrol blocked off all of the roads leading to the church, and only permitted residents to enter the area by car. Two traffic-control airplanes flew overhead throughout the day. Chief Deputy Pridgen, in charge of security, did not think there would be any trouble, since the workers were assigned to stay with people of their own color.
Student activists who were involved with the painting of the First Presbyterian Church quickly capitalized on the incident. Indeed, the confrontations and arson attempt whetted the appetites of many activists in town. After the confrontation in Elm City, students prepared to test the limits of integration by going to white churches on Sunday mornings during the summer months to conduct “kneel-ins.” Delegations of four students attended churches all across the city. The results were mixed. Most of the Episcopal and Catholic churches in town had little problem with the arrival of a small contingent of black students. Generally, the Presbyterian churches welcomed the students as well. The Baptist churches exhibited the widest range of responses. Two protesters went to one church and were told that they could not sit in the front pew. They left the church in disgust. On another Sunday four students decided to attend First Baptist, the city’s largest white Baptist church. They waited until the offering was taken, and then followed the ushers all the way down to the second row, where they took seats for the remainder of the service. The pastor, William Bussey, welcomed the students warmly after the service.
The first half of the 1960s represented a period of change and illumination for activists living in Wilson. For those who participated in marches and protests in the early years of the decade, the experience proved transformative. Spurred on by the thousands of students nationwide who took to the streets in the pursuit of greater freedom, Wilson’s young people mobilized an effective assault on many of the city’s segregated facilities. By the end of 1964, student actions resulted in the integration of dozens of restaurants and all of the city’s movie theaters. The students’ continued efforts also led to the integration of a number of churches throughout the city. However, even as students took to the streets in solidarity with their counterparts across the country, they remained quite aware of the impending legislation that worked its way through Congress and was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in the early days of July. In the minds of many students, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped transform their role in the movement. With a federal law on the books that specifically outlawed segregation in public accommodations, people who labored in the streets moved from a position of institutional opposition to one of legal support. They had always been on the right side of the law; their convictions weathered the titanic contradictions of the American creed in that regard. But now, the federal government provided something of a wind at their back. Sustained by the production of what Martin Luther King called “creative tension,” activists in Wilson and other cities seized upon the legislation as yet another affirmation of the righteous nature of their perpetual pursuit of Greater Freedom.
Charles W. McKinney is The Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College. He is the author of Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (University Press of America, 2010).