Freedom Days– Halifax County, 1964

Tonight’s Black History Month post is about another forgotten moment in eastern North Carolina’s civil rights history: a historic voting rights movement in Halifax County, N.C., in 1964. It was called the Halifax County Voters Movement. I stumbled on it when I was going through some of my old notes from The Carolina Times, the African American newspaper that has been published in Durham, N.C., since 1921.

Louis Austin was editor and publisher of Durham's historically black newspaper, The Carolina Times, from 1927 until his death in 1971. Photo courtesy, Durham County Public Library

Louis Austin was editor and publisher of Durham’s historically black newspaper, The Carolina Times, from 1927 until his death in 1971. Photo courtesy, Durham County Public Library

My historical work has always focused on eastern North Carolina, not Durham, but I have always appreciated The Carolina Times for reporting on many important events in eastern N.C. that other newspapers did not cover.

From those stories in The Carolina Times, I first learned that the Halifax County Voters Movement held a series of “Freedom Days” to boost voter registration in the summer of 1964.

Much like “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” a far more famous voter registration campaign that also happened in 1964, Halifax County’s civil rights activists came together with young people from other parts of the U.S. to break down longstanding barriers to black and Native American voting.

The movement included young and old, men and women, blacks, Native Americans and whites.

The stories in The Carolina Times described many obstacles to black and Indian registration and voting in Halifax County. Those obstacles included Ku Klux Klan threats and attacks, delaying tactics at the registrar’s office and police harassment of potential registrants.

On July 11, 1964, the newspaper gave a sense of what the voter registration activists were up against. The paper quoted one of the voting rights activists saying, “In the Enfield police station, posters advertising coming KKK rallies have been openly displayed on the police bulletin board.”

Enfield is a small town in the southern part of Halifax County. Louis Austin, the editor and publisher of The Carolina Times, by the way, grew up in Enfield at a time when African Americans did not have the right to vote there. That may help to explain why he reported on events in the town so often.

Judging from The Carolina Times’ stories, the Halifax County Voters Movement persisted despite the Klan and many other kinds of voter intimidation. That year thousands of determined people in the majority-black county registered to vote for the first time.

Teacher Willa Cofield (Johnson) was one of the leaders of the Halifax County Voters Movement. Courtesy, www.hunterbear.org

Teacher Willa Cofield (Johnson), of Enfield, was one of the leaders of the Halifax County Voters Movement. Courtesy, http://www.hunterbear.org

In a single day in May  of 1964, 500 people registered to vote for the first time.

Over the next several years, similar voter registration campaigns swept across nearby counties as well. They included Warren, Franklin, Northampton, Bertie and other counties where people of color had long composed the majority of the population, but had not had the right to vote or hold political office for generations.

According to the The Carolina Times’ coverage, the Halifax County Voters Movement showed another kind of success as well: more African Americans ran for office in Halifax County that year than in any county in the South since Reconstruction.

I also found this interesting: the Halifax County Voter Movement’s success helped to inspire black residents to seek other rights of citizenship as well.

According to the The Carolina Times, the Halifax County Voter Movement’s demands had grown by the last half of 1964 to include some other, very basic rights of American citizenship:

  1. The right to serve on juries;
  2. The right to work at more than menial labor jobs;
  3. The right not to have signs like “White” and “Colored” on water fountains, rest rooms, waiting rooms, courtrooms and other places in public buildings;
  4. The right of black patients to be treated at the same hospitals as white patients, and the right for elderly black people be cared for in the same rest homes as elderly white people;
  5. The right of black families to have police protection at their homes and businesses, and especially protection from Ku Klux Klan attacks;
  6. The right of black children to attend school with white children;
  7. And lastly, the right for African American elders to be addressed in a dignified manner (as “Sir” or “Ma’am”).

The pages of those old newspapers open up a forgotten time and place that I think always bear remembering, but especially in these times when we are meeting new challenges to voting rights.

If you want to explore those old editions of The Carolina Times yourself, you can find archival copies on-line at Digital NC, the N.C. Digital Heritage Center’s web site.

You can specifically find coverage of the Halifax County Voters Movement in the editions for May 9, July 11, August 8 and December 12, 1964.

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