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From Sit-Ins to Eat-Ins, Charlotte Remembers Its Civil Rights History

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In the spring of 1963, a prominent civil rights leader led dozens of protesters on a four-mile march from a predominantly African-American college campus to the center of Charlotte’s downtown.

Dr. Reginald Hawkins warned city leaders that if something wasn’t done to end segregation, future marches might not be so peaceful.

Nearly two weeks later, civil rights and white business leaders quietly joined forces to desegregate the city’s upscale restaurants and hotels. In a simple but powerful gesture, they ate lunch together in the restaurants, peacefully opening the door to integration.

The May 29, 1963, lunch was a turning point in Charlotte’s emergence as a leading New South city. It contrasted sharply with the massive resistance seen in other Southern cities, such as Birmingham, Ala., where the police chief that same month turned fire hoses and dogs on young protesters.

“The city’s leadership recognized that there was a need to make necessary changes, but they did not want the violence that happened in other communities to happen here,” said Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee.

That lunch is being remembered this month with a series of events. On May 29, African-Americans and white civic leaders will discuss race relations at a Charlotte lunch event. The city’s community relations board is urging residents to invite someone of a different race to lunch the same day.

Ratchford said while race relations have improved, it’s important to honestly discuss the issue.

“Many of us think that the racism of the past is no longer here,” he said. “We think that way because we don’t see it. Back in those days, it was more overt. What we don’t realize is it still does happen — but not to the degree that it used to.”

Charlotte has long considered itself a major business community. In the years after the Civil War, the city’s banks provided capital to help the region’s then-flourishing textile industry expand.

Today, Charlotte — with 760,000 people — is the largest city in North Carolina and one of the fastest growing in the U.S. The city is home to Bank of America Corp., the second largest U.S. bank by assets, and Duke Energy, the country’s largest energy company. In 2012, Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention.

But in the aftermath of the Civil War, Charlotte — like most Southern cities — was deeply segregated. African-Americans were forced to attend segregated schools. They were barred from mingling with whites in movie theaters, hotels and restaurants.

After World War II, African-Americans returning home from military service began challenging the status quo.

One of the leaders in Charlotte’s civil rights movement was Hawkins, a Korean War veteran, dentist and Presbyterian preacher. For years, he led successful sit-ins and protests…

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