As 17-year-old Kelly Alexander Jr. lay in bed in the early morning hours of Monday, Nov. 22, 1965, in the bedroom he shared with his brother Alfred in their family’s home across from West Charlotte High School, he heard a rumbling that he took to be thunder. As it turned out, what he heard was the dynamite bombing of his uncle’s house next door. Seconds later, the window above him exploded in a violent blast.
“I remember hearing what I thought was thunder in the distance, and the next thing there was a big flash, which would have been the bomb going off on our porch,” recalls Alexander, now a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives. “Our room was right next to [the porch], so when the bomb went off, all of the windows just shattered and blasted across the bedroom.”
He believes that he and Alfred were saved from serious harm because they were lying directly under the window, so when the glass exploded across the room it blew right over their heads. His brother would later tease Kelly that he must be able to levitate, as he ran across the room full of broken glass and didn’t get as much as a scratch on his feet.
The attack was aimed at Alexander’s father, Kelly Alexander Sr., the president of the North Carolina NAACP. The bombings on Senior Drive in the University Park neighborhood targeting Alexander Sr. and his brother, Charlotte City Council member Fred D. Alexander, were two of four carried out that night targeting local civil rights leaders on the Beatties Ford Road corridor in Historic West End. All of the attacks occurred within minutes of each other, beginning at about 2:15 a.m.
Nearby in the McCrorey Heights neighborhood, Dr. Reginald Hawkins was targeted for his work in expanding local protests and sit-ins that had been started by Johnson C. Smith University students in Uptown.
In Northwood Estates, civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers’ house was also bombed. Chambers had presented the famous Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education lawsuit, and more recently stirred local white supremacists into a frenzy with his efforts to integrate the Shrine Bowl, a popular high school football all-star game that took place every December.
Race Relations spark a Reputation Roller-Coaster
Though nobody was seriously hurt in the bombings, they shook Charlotte to the core, serving as a wake-up call to white residents and city leaders who liked to believe that their city was above the racial violence and unrest that had been plaguing much of the Deep South. The effects of the bombings on Charlotte’s populace have implications that still ring true in the city today.
No arrests have ever been made in the attacks. In a 2001 interview with Melinda Desmarais for the UNC Charlotte Digital Sound Archive Initiative, Hawkins says he was told by his sources within the FBI that local police worked in concert with the FBI to carry out the bombings.
“I still believe that until I die,” Hawkins says in the recording. “I know that they had me on the Un-American list … I know that Julius and all of us were listed as communists, and [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover had done everything he could to demonize us.”
Willie Griffin, staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South, says that no strong evidence has arisen to support that theory, although “it’s not a far-fetched belief, just understanding all the things that were going on in the 1960s.”
The Ku Klux Klan has long been suspected of involvement. Though the KKK presence was not strong in Charlotte, nearby towns were bastions for the hate group. In his book Radio Free Dixie, Timothy B. Tyson called nearby Monroe “the southeastern capital of the KKK.”
The Nov. 22 attacks brought the truth about race relations in Charlotte to the forefront and forced people to honestly confront the hatred and turmoil that bubbled underneath the surface. The city had been purposeful about the image it projected to the rest of the country.
“This was done in many ways to continue to remain an economically viable city while other cities in the South were just wrecking their reputation, almost as if they didn’t consider how this would affect their bottom line,” Griffin says.
Officials had been embarrassed in 1957 when young Dorothy Counts was harassed, accosted and spat on while walking to Harding High School to attend class as the first black student there. Photos published in newspapers and video footage aired across the nation that night put Charlotte in a bad light, but the city had stayed off the national newscasts until the 1965 bombings.
“You fast forward almost a decade later [after Dorothy Counts], and this was another black eye,” says Griffin. “This was like the second black eye of the televised era, and Charlotte leaders did not want to be known as a place that was compared to Birmingham, [Alabama]. And so they worked to try to make this go away, to go across racial lines to show that this was not Charlotte.”
Six days after the bombings, thousands of black and white Charlotteans gathered at Ovens Auditorium to rally in support of the families that were targeted that night. For Kelly Alexander Jr., the rally was like a new start to a fight that his grandfather had fought, that his father had fought, and that he had recently taken up as a youth leader in the local NAACP.
“At this time in my life, I had been at many, many rallies, and the spirit of reconciliation [at Ovens Auditorium], the spirit of rejection of those who resort to violence to settle things, it was very much in the air,” he says. “And that’s been a hallmark of this community ever since.”
Alexander says the unification that followed the bombings was something that carried on for many years to come.
“Even years later, well over a decade later, I would come in contact with people who would talk about the political dynamic of the period and would end up in much the same place: that they had grown to appreciate what my father and his cohort had been doing, but they didn’t appreciate it back then, and they recognized that it was a necessary component of all of us coming to a point where we could come together and move ahead,” he says.
“New South” Becomes a Progressive Diversion to Reality
The Ovens rally was far from the end of racial tensions in Charlotte, where in the nearly 55 years since the bombings, city leaders and local activists have continued to grapple with the “New South” image that the city puts forward in contrast to the realities of racial disparities and segregation — be it mandated by law or naturally occurring.
For Griffin, however, the city’s response was more sincere than other Southern cities and towns, where news of unrest was answered with the shaming and blaming of black civil rights activists who were said to be provoking violence with protests and demands for equality.
“Progressivism means different things at different times in the course of our history,” Griffin says. “And the fact that Charlotte was working to try to deal with what had happened — I mean really grapple with what was going on in a transparent way — that is what set Charlotte apart from other Southern cities, and that is what made it progressive for this time period.”
Perhaps the walking embodiment of Charlotte’s contrasts between its progressive public image and its racial realities at the time was the city’s mayor, Stan Brookshire, A former journalist elected in 1961. Part of the reason Brookshire was so successful was because he understood the role that the media played in shaping the city’s narrative, Griffin says.
Upon his election, Brookshire restructured the Mayor’s Friendly Relationship Committee, formed in 1960 to facilitate conversations between lunch counter sit-in protesters and local business owners. Brookshire created the Mayor’s Community Relations Committee, which consisted of 27 notable black and white Charlotteans who would explore issues of housing, education, crime, the impact of segregation on communities, and equal opportunities for work, according to documents in the UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library digital archives.
However, Brookshire was also a strong proponent of policies that have since been understood by many to be egregiously harmful.
For example, rather than dedicate resources to help lift up historically black neighborhoods like Brooklyn in the Second Ward, where Alexander Jr. and his brother grew up, Brookshire promoted “urban renewal” policies that would lead to the destruction of the neighborhood — sometimes taking matters into his own hands.
In Brooklyn: A City Within a City, an exhibit currently showing at Levine Museum that Griffin helped to curate, Brookshire can be seen gleefully posing for a photo while taking a sledgehammer to a Brooklyn home.
We are Still Fighting Yesterday’s Fight
More than a half-century later, Charlotte has a majority black city council and black leaders ranging from police chief to mayor to sheriff to chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Yet still, despite the progress made and the progressive image that’s touted publicly, tensions remain, as was seen in the response to the killing of Keith Lamont Scott by a CMPD officer in 2016, known as the Charlotte Uprising.
For Griffin, the flashpoints that have occurred throughout Charlotte’s history over the last 90 years are symbolic of a difference in the problems that it faces. Most people tie the civil rights movement to issues regarding the right to vote and integration, and while Charlotte has seen its share of integration battles, many of the issues activists have fought for in our city have revolved around police violence and economics, Griffin says.
In fact, the first known example of the local black community coming together to organize was in response to police violence in 1930, he says.
“With the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the Charlotte Uprising, the long history of negative interactions between police and black communities is finally coming to the surface, and that has been absent from our understanding of the civil rights movement,” Griffin says. “All across the South, African-Americans have always organized their communities to push back against over-policing and police violence, but we think that that’s something new.”
Alexander Jr. agrees that some of today’s turmoil stems from the fact that issues around police violence have only gained national attention relatively recently, while black residents and activists have been speaking about them for generations.
He remembers that one of the first campaigns he worked on as a young man involved calling on local police to stop carrying the heavy flashlight models that they would often use to beat people in custody.
“Those kinds of issues involving the police are not new,” he says. “It may be new to some folks who have just noticed them for the first time, or been involved with them for the first time, but they have been around for a long time.”
He traces the slow progress of police accountability efforts from his work to call for dashboard cameras in police cars as president of the North Carolina NAACP in the ’80s and ’90s, to helping secure funding for body cameras for departments around the state as a legislator in 2015. He’s also proud of local activists’ efforts to fight for and finally form a Citizens Review Board with the CMPD.
“From each one of these incidents, tragic as they have been, I believe we have had some progress, we’ve moved forward,” Alexander Jr. says, having lived through a bomb being detonated feet from his head and seeing the community react, to watching residents come together following the Charlotte Uprising. “Again, the hallmark of this community has been to learn from adversity, and not just standing around and [saying] ‘Woe is me’ but figuring out what we can do to improve.”