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Photo of MLK in Charlotte Highlights Three Generations of Local History

An audacious future

“We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave that advice in a 1967 speech in Atlanta, but it brings to my mind a photograph snapped here in Charlotte just a year earlier.

On Sept. 21, 1966, Rev. King spoke at a conference on racial justice organized by the Presbyterian Church, held in the gymnasium at Johnson C. Smith University. I am grateful to the Special Collections unit at UNC Charlotte’s Atkins Library for safeguarding that photo and making it available all these years later. The photograph shows Rev. King surrounded by ebullient admirers. He’s looking at someone we can’t see, his mouth open as he responds to their comment or question.

Martin Luther King Charlotte
This photo of Martin Luther King Jr. in Charlotte in 1966 features three generations of Charlotte Black history. (Photo courtesy of Reginald Hawkins Papers, J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte)

It’s a happy moment, a moment in which this man of inspiration has made himself available — as he did so many times — to those he urged to join him in the march toward social justice. “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

We can’t see what King can see, but it’s out there, just like the person we can’t see in that photograph.

Today, we only know the names of four Charlotte residents surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. in the photo. (If you know others, please get in touch). Over on the right, in the starched police cap and wire-rim glasses, that’s George Thomas Nash Jr. He’s one of Charlotte’s first cohort of Black police officers and will retire in 1967 after 25 years on the force.

When George Nash started in 1942, African-American officers could not arrest white criminals, could not even carry a gun. He persisted, earned respect, gave respect, created a better future. “We must walk on … with an audacious faith in the future.”

Near the center of the photo, can you see the intense, focused man who is leaning forward at Rev. King’s shoulder? He’s got some papers in his hand, ready to show. He’s ready to quite literally put an idea in King’s ear. That’s Dr. Reginald Hawkins, one of Charlotte’s most outspoken Civil Rights activists.

Dr. Hawkins chose dentistry for his career, a profession where he served Black clients — so he wouldn’t be dependent on white dollars. He wanted to be able to speak out and cause trouble where it needed to be caused.

It was Dr. Hawkins in 1954 who organized one of the very first sit-ins, going with three other Black professionals from his neighborhood of McCrorey Heights out to the new Charlotte airport terminal. The restaurants there barred Black people in 1954.

Thanks to Dr. Hawkins, and Thomas Wyche, and Charles V. Bell, and W.W. Twitty, everyone would be served by 1956. “We must walk on … with an audacious faith in the future.”

It was Dr. Reginald Hawkins who led the marches that desegregated Charlotte’s upscale restaurants in 1963 and the marches that desegregated the hospitals in 1966. It was Dr. Reginald Hawkins who walked Dorothy Counts home from school on that scary first day of integration at Harding High. “We must walk on … with an audacious faith in the future.”

In November of 1965, just a few months before the above photo was taken, Dr. Hawkins’ house was bombed in the night. The homes of four Civil Rights leaders — Dr. Hawkins, activists Kelly Alexander and Fred Alexander, attorney Julius Chambers — were bombed with dynamite in the dark of night. To this day, no culprits have ever been charged.

Julius Chambers, the Alexanders and Dr. Hawkins just kept on with their work, though. Look at Dr. Hawkins in that photo. He’s come through so much, but there he is, fired up to make the world a better place. “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

The two other people we know in the photo? You can just barely see them up to the left behind Dr. Hawkins. That’s David Belton, the boy on the left, and there’s Gerard Benson, standing on tip-toe right next to him. They’re still in high school in 1966, here to witness history that’s not yet in their textbooks.

David Belton’s extended family did literally make it into the history books; his uncle and aunt, Rev. J.A. DeLaine and Mattie Belton DeLaine, worked with legendary attorney Thurgood Marshall to organize the first of five cases that would become Brown v. Board of Education.

Gerard Benson would become a Charlotte culture-maker, bass player and decades-long member of A Sign of the Times, this city’s heartbeat for jazz and African-American heritage. 

I think it was young people like David Belton and Gerard Benson who Rev. King most wanted us to reach out for when he said, “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

Three generations in that one photo, from Officer George Nash on the verge of retirement; to middle-aged Dr. Reginald Hawkins; to youngsters Belton and Benson. They remind us that the work of creating a better world is not done — certainly not in our generation. It is something we must always be striving toward. As Rev. King said, “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

For more Black History of Charlotte, check out the five-part series from local historian Pam Grundy, published by Queen City Nerve in 2020. 

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