The choice of Charlotte, North Carolina, for the venue of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 (winning over Cleveland, Minneapolis and St Louis), is symbolic as well as pragmatic.
Pragmatic, because it will be here that Barack Obama hopefully seals the deal with his party and a watching nation for a second term in the White House. It will allow him to speak to voters in the South, something he needs to do more of if he is to win again.
Symbolic also because Charlotte has seen much racial tension in its time. Michelle Obama may today praise Charlotte as ‘A city marked by its Southern charm, warm hospitality, and an up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that has propelled the city forward as one of the fastest-growing in the South. Vibrant, diverse, and full of opportunity, the Queen City is home to innovative, hardworking folks with big hearts and open minds. And of course, great barbecue’. But it was not always so, and for some the First Lady’s description may not quite fit their experience today, particularly if they are at school in Charlotte.
Take the controversy of Dorothy Counts, in 1957 a 15-year-old black schoolgirl, the daughter of a university professor. Counts enrolled at the all-white Harry Harding High School, along with other black students enrolling at other white-only schools in the district. The first black student arriving at Harry Harding High caused vile scenes, with students screaming racist abuse, throwing rocks and spitting on her back. A bin was emptied was emptied on her lunch. Teachers ignored her. Photographers were on hand to capture photographs like this one.
A powerful image, containing little evidence of the ‘big hearts and open minds’ Michelle Obama notes in Charlotteans these days.
After four days of humiliation for Dorothy Counts – threatening phone calls at home, a smashed up locker, etc, etc – the school board intervened to tell her parents that her safety could not be guaranteed if she remained at Harding High (motto: failure is not an option). So they sent her to study at an integrated school in Philadelphia.
Dorothy’s father said: ‘It is with compassion for our native land and love for our daughter Dorothy that we withdraw her as a student at Harding High School. As long as we felt she could be protected from bodily injury and insults within the school’s walls and upon the school premises, we were willing to grant her desire to study at Harding’.
A brief, hideous episode, but enough to cause sufficient waves of bad publicity for the Charlotte authorities to push schools kicking and screaming towards integration.
And after many courtroom battles, the 1971 Supreme Court decision on Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education meant that the compulsory busing of children to promote integration, not based on catchment areas or neighbourhoods, led to Charlotte becoming known across the USA as ‘the city that made desegregation work’.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Counts finished her school education in Philadelphia and moved back to Charlotte to study for a degree at (the historically black) Johnson C. Smith University. She still lives in Charlotte and has worked for childcare charities for much of her life. Last year she recalled: ‘What happened on that day really set me on a path. I’ve always wanted to work to make sure that bad things don’t happen to other children’.
The library of Harding High has been named after her, which Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, now approaching seventy, believes gives her ‘a chance to talk to kids about the importance of education, and to let them know that people have had to fight for them to have these opportunities. I can be a reminder to them’.
In 2000, in response to pressure from Charlotteans who had moved into the city when its economy was flourishing in the 1980s and 90s, compulsory busing was overturned in court. The school board was ordered to return to a system of assignment of school places by neighbourhood in what since 2002 has been called the School Choice Plan. Though de jure (by law) segregation no longer exists, the end of busing has created de facto segregation – white children attend schools in white neighbourhoods, black children in black neighbourhoods.
Dorothy Counts-Scoggins points to evidence of growing inequality at the predominantly black West Charlotte High, saying ‘At the beginning of the school year, they would go for weeks without books, for weeks without enough chairs for everyone in the classroom. When I heard about that I thought, Lord, this brings back memories’.
So when the Democratic National Convention rolls into town in 2012, 55 years after Dorothy Counts attempted simply to go to school, and when the first black president mounts the stage to make his speech after four years in office, there will be many listening and watching whose lives are still confronted by de facto segregation – not only in education, but also in access to housing, jobs, healthcare, insurance and loans. Obama will have to reach out and persuade many audiences, but in Charlotte of all places, he will need to explain what has changed, and what will change next, for people like Dorothy Counts-Scoggins.