RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — On the second floor of the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, an exhibit stands remembering 60 years since mass demonstrations took place in 1963 that called for an end to segregated facilities in Durham.
Former state senator Floyd McKissick Jr. remembers it like it was yesterday.
Growing up in segregated Durham
“I’m part of the last generation that remembers segregation in America…that lived it, that saw it, that experienced it firsthand,” said McKissick Jr.
Six decades ago, the former senator and Durham city councilman was participating in civil rights demonstrations with his father, the late civil rights leader Floyd McKissick Sr.
“I think there’s a picture of me picketing when I was about 9 and 10 years old in front of the royal ice cream place over in Durham,” said McKissick Jr. “I wanted to picket. I want to be out there. And while you were picketing the Ku Klux Klan would come by and throw out leaflets…’you’ve been visited by the next Klan…’ but at our home from dusk, dark to the break of dawn we had people sitting there with shotguns and rifles to protect us because we had so many threats coming in.”
Efforts to desegregate Durham started long before the 1960s.
A significant ‘first’ for the nation
One of the most notable was a sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, which took place in 1957.
Staff at the Carolina Theatre say it was one of the nation’s first significant civil rights protests.
In January of 1961, on the same day of president John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration, Durham Schools and colleges began peacefully protesting outside the Carolina Theatre and other theatres in downtown Durham.
Some of those students were from North Carolina Central University.
“They didn’t sort of wave away from this idea that sometimes you have to put your body on the line and that’s what we’re talking about, people putting their body on the line,” said Andre Vann, an NCCU professor and the coordinator of the university’s archives.
He took a CBS 17 crew on a tour of the theatre’s second floor where a civil rights exhibit currently stands.
The work is not done
“This gives you a great example of the window that they would have seen, where they would have come here, but also note the sign here ‘colored must sit in the balcony,” Vann said. “That’s real.”
Finally, in 1963, a number of mass protests took place calling for desegregation.
“It took place over about a 3- or 4-day period that resulted in over 800 people being arrested that really led to a change in Durham,” said Vann. “Mayor Wense Grabarek took office in that time frame.”
By the summer, with the help of community members and a newly elected mayor, 90% of Durham Restaurants and other businesses across the city were desegregated.
McKissick Jr. told me when he looks back on those times, he sees progress—but says the work is not done.
“I, we, still have a long way to go in terms of America being a just and equal society but I’m very much encouraged by the progress we’ve made over the last 60 years,” said McKissick Jr.
And the work continues on.