Civil Rights Act spurred rise of ‘the university of the people’
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born from outrage and tragedy.
In May 1963, a horrified country watched on television as Eugene “Bull” Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, unleashed police and fire fighters armed with attack dogs, nightsticks and fire hoses on hundreds of African-American marchers.
Reacting to the public outcry, President John F. Kennedy went on national television a month later to announce that he would send a tough civil rights bill to Congress. That same day, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was murdered in his driveway.
By the end of November, Kennedy would also be dead, but President Lyndon B. Johnson seized the moment to push ahead with the legislation. Five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson appeared before Congress saying no eulogy could more eloquently honor Kennedy’s memory than passing the civil rights bill.
The country had talked about equal rights long enough, Johnson declared: “It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
By the following summer, that chapter became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
‘A Sisyphean struggle’
Fifty years later, the achievement of racial equality remains a work in progress – both for the country and this campus, said Charles Daye, Henry Brandis Professor of Law and deputy director of the School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights.
“In general, the quest for justice for African-Americans is a little akin to a Sisyphean struggle: You go up the hill a little bit to roll the rock, and you take your eyes off of it and the rock rolls down the hill, and then you have to start all over,” he said.
“I’ve hung around for over 40 years and I’ve seen the rock roll up the hill quite a bit. I’ve seen it roll back some, too.”
When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Daye was finishing his sophomore year as a student at N.C. Central University. He was arrested with some 1,000 students at some of the civil rights demonstrations he participated in.
Daye continued his own push for racial equality after he joined the Carolina faculty in 1972 as the first black person to hold a tenure-track faculty position at the law school.
Three decades later, Daye felt compelled to say that the faculty had not succeeded at creating sufficient diversity and he approached the dean about increasing the number of African-American faculty at the law school. The dean and the faculty listened and by the mid-2000s there were five black professors – three plus Daye with tenure, and one on the tenure-track.
But in the years since, the number never rose above five, even as the law faculty has grown by nearly a third.
Jack Boger, outgoing dean of the law school whose scholarly work has called attention to the recent resegregation of public schools, said he and past deans have shared Daye’s quest, but have faced their own Sisyphean struggles.
During his years on the Carolina law faculty, Boger said, two outstanding black faculty members suffered untimely illness and death, several others were recruited by other schools and one left to join her spouse who works in Washington D.C.
“Sadly, because of the legacy of discrimination, the number of African-Americans with the means to pursue academic careers continues to lag behind other groups that have not faced those same barriers,” Boger said.
Ironically, as society becomes more open and diverse, African-American faculty have become the scarce resource that institutions like Carolina most want, Boger said. Many of the top African-American faculty members he seeks to hire are also being recruited by some of the best law schools in the country.
All too often, Boger added, he lacks the resources to match the salary offers they now command.
The longer march
Daye agreed with Boger that the challenges are real.
So, too, are the numbers, as he and Debby Stroman discussed last month during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Carolina Black Caucus, the organization that Daye co-founded in 1974 with Vice Chancellor Harold G. Wallace. Stroman is the current caucus chair and a director at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.
As of August 2013, of the 3,319 members of Carolina’s fulltime permanent faculty, only 168 – or 5 percent – are African-American, she said, and of the 949 full professors, only 23 – or 2.4 percent – are African-American.
To put that into context, 22 percent of the North Carolina population is African-American, Stroman said. Those disparities have deep roots in the University’s history.
Until the midpoint of the 19th century, Carolina served the sons of the slaveholding elite. And nearly a century after the Civil War, the University remained hobbled by a rigid system of racial segregation.
These harsh legacies cannot be forgotten, but more importantly, they must be overcome for the University to claim itself as an institution of vision, innovation and leadership, Stroman said. And progress is now a growing part of Carolina’s legacy, too.
It was not until 1951 that Kenneth Lee, Henry Beech, James Lassiter and Floyd McKissick became the first black students granted admission to Carolina, Stroman said, and not until 1955 that Carolina admitted the first black undergraduates.
The first black faculty member, Hortense McClinton, was not hired until 1966 in the School of Social Work.
Fewer than 100 black undergraduates had been admitted to Carolina by December 1968 when the Black Student Movement (BSM) presented Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson with a list of 23 demands intended to give African-American students more opportunity and representation at the University.
Among their demands: the creation of an African-American studies department and an office that would be responsive to black students’ needs. In a 19-page reply, Sitterson asserted the University “cannot, in policy or practice, provide unique treatment for any single race, color or creed.”
However, Sitterson changed his stance after students organized numerous protests and sit-ins and faculty members organized a petition backing the BSM’s demands. Within five years, a majority of the group’s demands had been met.
Becoming the people’s university
Despite the campus activism, the University remained a predominantly white institution, with a handful of black students, through the end of the 1970s, said Taffye Benson Clayton, Carolina’s associate vice chancellor for diversity and multicultural affairs.
What changed, Clayton said, was the 1981 agreement between the U.S. Department of Education and the UNC system – spurred by a lawsuit the NAACP filed against the federal government 11 years before – that called for both black and white institutions within the UNC system to actively integrate.
Interestingly, Clayton said, this is also where the 1964 Civil Rights act came into play: the NAACP’s suit charged that the government had failed to enforce the provision of the act that said state universities that received federal money could not discriminate on the basis of race.
After losing the case, the federal government was required to develop tougher standards for 10 states, including North Carolina, which did not have a desegregation plan for higher education.
In the ensuing years, Carolina began the practice of opening access for all minorities in an effort to remedy previous years of racial discrimination. In doing so, there was also greater opportunity for other historically underrepresented groups, Clayton, a 1990 alumna, remembers firsthand.
“The idea was to open the institution in a way that embraced all students toward this promise of education and that ushered in this period where folks with roles similar to mine began to proliferate throughout the UNC system and universities nationally,” Clayton said.
Clayton said the 1981 consent decree became the legal underpinning that gave rise to what she described as the “widening arc toward diversity and inclusion” that has expanded beyond the black-white paradigm with which it began.
Instead of tolerating the presence of previously excluded groups, the University now embraces diversity as an essential ingredient for academic excellence that enhances the learning experience for all students, she said.
This dramatic shift in the institution’s core values is reflected in groundbreaking programs like the Carolina Covenant begun a decade ago to allow students from poor backgrounds to get a Carolina degree debt free, Clayton said. But as the country’s first public university, Carolina must also continue to find ways to lead on issues of access, diversity and opportunity.
“I think we lead by being ever connected to our past so that we understand where we have come from and what progress we have made,” Clayton said. “But leading also demands that we continue to challenge ourselves by asking what are the next steps on this long-term journey.”
When she was a student here in the late 1980s, Clayton said, the big issue on campus was a free-standing Black Cultural Center. And for a long time, she said, it did not seem that it was going to happen – until it did. The Sonya Haynes Stone Center opened its doors in summer 2004.
A year later, the Unsung Founders Memorial, which features a stone tabletop supported by 300 bronze figurines, was installed on McCorkle Place. The memorial’s inscription says the piece honors the University’s unsung heroes, “the people of color bond and free who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”
Daye, who is about to end his 42-year career as a law professor – 37 of them at Carolina – said he is heartened by the fact that men and women of color now have made significant headway in working to secure a rightful place in Carolina’s classrooms and labs. But he noted that, as with many hard tasks, more needs to be done, and constant vigilance is required.
“One thought that I’ve had is, if you are in a ditch and stand up, you won’t see very far because your horizon will be limited,” Daye said. “But if you can get on a ladder, you can climb out of that ditch. And the higher you can climb up that ladder, the more your horizon will expand, and the more you can see.
“Education is the ladder.”