20 The Quest for Freedom in the Post-Brown South: Desegregation and White Self-Interest
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20 The Quest for Freedom in the Post-Brown South: Desegregation and White Self-Interest DAVISON M. DOUGLAS In their response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, moderate southern communities differed from their recalcitrant counterparts in at least one significant aspect. These communities understood that white self-interest demanded a certain degree of accommodation to integration demands. Thus, in many moderate southern cities, white elites, especially business leaders, played critical roles in facilitating limited racial integration as a means of preserving a strong business environment. At the same time, this need to appear racially moderate provided the black community with an important opportunity to challenge racial segregation that activists successfully exploited in many southern communities. The desegregation experience in Charlotte, North Carolina, confirms, in large measure, the conclusions of those who have noted the correlation between the success of desegregation initiatives and a community understanding that economic goals were more important than adherence to traditional racial patterns. Previous studies of the desegregation experiences in individual southern communities have suggested that those communities that desegregated schools and public accommodations relatively early were influenced by the support of a white business class that favored such action. In Charlotte, for example, each time the city engaged in early desegregation, the city's black community had threatened racial disruption through either litigation or public protest. Fearing the negative impact of racial strife on the city's strong economic climate, Charlotte's white business elite, closely allied with the city's elected officials, took action to fend off black protest by engaging in voluntary but token integration in advance of most other southern cities. What distinguished Charlotte and its moderate counterparts like Atlanta and Dallas from more obstreperous southern communities like Birmingham and New Orleans was not so much a philosophical embrace of racial integration but rather a calculated understanding that controlled desegregation could serve broader economic interests. Compare Charlotte with Greensboro, North Carolina, for example. Like Charlotte, Greensboro (another moderate Southern city) captured national attention in 1957 when it joined Charlotte as one of the first southern cities to integrate its schools voluntarily without a court order. Moreover, both Chariotte and Greensboro are medium-sized cities located in the urban Piedmont section of a state that studiously avoided open defiance of the Brown decision. Yet despite the presence in Greensboro of a better educated and more politically 70 CHI-KENT L. REV. 689 (1994). Originally published in the Chicago-Kent Law Review. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 118 Davison M. Douglas active black community that pressed its racial demands more aggressively than its counterpart in Charlotte, racial desegregation generally came sooner and with less conflict in Charlotte , particularly public accommodations desegregation. The difference between Charlotte and Greensboro is largely due to the differing response of the white business and political elite-especially the mayor-to racial demands. Charlotte's white elite, under the direction of Mayor Stanford Brookshire, was considerably more active in resolving racial conflict and far more willing to expend its moral and political capital to those ends than was the white elite in Greensboro. The experience in other moderate southern cities confirms the positive correlation between an active white elite and the speed with which desegregation took place. At the heart of Charlotte's acquiescence in limited desegregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s lies its white business elite's desire to retain control over the city's carefully nurtured public image. When black activists mounted a serious threat to that image through threat of litigation or public demonstrations, the city quickly negotiated limited integration. The Charlotte School Board chose to engage in the voluntary integration of its schools in 1957 because it understood that allowing four black children to attend a white school-in a school system with over 50,000 students---eould prevent judicial control over the school system and pupil mixing of an even greater magnitude. Similarly, in 1962, the city's school board adopted a pupil assignment plan based in part on geography because it understood that without such a plan the system was vulnerable to legal challenge with uncertain results. In 1963, the city's business leaders capitulated quickly to black leaders' demands for integrated public accommodations , recognizing that to do otherwise could lead to widespread demonstrations that would paint an unflattering portrait of the city's race relations. By controlling the pace of integration in each of these instances, integration remained token and minimally intrusive, while the white business elite retained control...