This is the 6th part of my series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today, I look at Hyde County and the civil rights movement throughout eastern North Carolina.
Before I went to Hyde County and wrote Along Freedom Road, I think I thought the civil rights movement happened some place besides eastern North Carolina.
I was young and green then, and I thought that the historic events in the African American freedom struggle only happened in the famous civil rights battlegrounds such as Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.
Or maybe places like Washington, DC, where, at the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Back then, I thought the civil rights movement only happened in far-off places like Mississippi, where “Freedom Summer” unfolded in 1964 and they killed Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and all those other people.
I grew up in eastern North Carolina, but I just never really heard much about the civil rights movement there when I was a young. My history books didn’t say anything about our civil rights movement at all.
And I never saw any monuments, historical markers or museum exhibits that talked about a civil rights movement here.
I don’t think it was just me, either. In an important 1976 study, two of the South’s most astute political scientists, Walter DeVries and Jack Bass, proclaimed that eastern North Carolina was “bypassed by the civil rights movement.”
And then I went to Hyde County—one of the poorest and most remote counties in the U.S. at that time—and discovered that the civil rights movement happened everywhere.
While writing Along Freedom Road, I discovered that important local civil rights movements had occurred all over eastern N.C.
My list would be even longer now, but 25 years ago, when I was researching Along Freedom Road, I learned about civil rights movements in:
Ayden, Bayboro, Beaufort, Belhaven, Clinton, Dunn, East Arcadia, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Goldsboro, Greenville, New Bern, Pembroke, Plymouth, Roanoke Rapids, Robersonville, Rocky Mount, Rich Square, Roper, Rose Hill, Scotland Neck, Smithfield, Trenton, Vanceboro, Warrenton, Washington, Whiteville, Williamston, Windsor, Wilmington and Wilson.
That’s not even counting nearly every crossroads and village in Halifax, Northampton, Warren, Hertford, Bertie and the other “Black Belt” counties in northeastern N.C.
In those places, I discovered sit-ins, marches, picket lines, boycotts, freedom schools, strikes and demonstrations. I learned about voting rights campaigns, civil rights litigation and long months of protests aimed at toppling Jim Crow.
I learned about long struggles to integrate schools, hospitals, libraries, stores, restaurants and other public accommodations.
I also learned about harsh white resistance to those local civil rights campaigns: Ku Klux Klan attacks, bombings, protestors beaten in the streets and many, many nights in jail.
Some of those local civil rights movements lasted for years—the Williamston Freedom Movement, in Martin County, comes to mind.
From 1963 to 1965, the civil rights movement in Williamston was so strong, and white resistance so vehement, that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference seriously considered making their national voting rights stand there.
After narrowing their list to Williamston and Selma, Alabama, SCLC’s leaders ultimately chose Selma. “Bloody Selma” became world famous, while we are still waiting for the civil rights movement in Williamston to be honored the way that it should be.
Other civil rights protests didn’t last for years, but they made a powerful impact in a short time: the blueberry pickers strike in Bridgeton, for instance, or the landmark school integration lawsuit that the Pamlico County NAACP filed in 1951.
I went to Hyde County to learn about the history of the school boycott in 1968-69, but what I discovered was far bigger: it was an extraordinary history of civil rights activism and an African American freedom struggle that reached into almost every corner of eastern North Carolina.
That civil rights movement is a part of our history about which all of us who grew up or live in eastern North Carolina can be very proud.
And when we face our own dark times, as we are now in America, we can look to Hyde County and all those other civil rights struggles in eastern North Carolina for inspiration and hope.
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Next week I’ll try to finish up this series with a story from Hyde County’s commemoration of the school boycott’s 50th anniversary on September 2nd.