From the shadow of slavery : the civil rights years in Charleston
O'Neill, Stephen, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Gaston, Paul M., Department of History, University of Virginia
Sullivan, Patricia, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
This study examines the racial history of Charleston, South Carolina, between 1950 and 1975 by placing that period in the larger context of the city's three-hundred-year history. The paper argues that the actions of blacks and whites in Charleston during the civil rights years were governed in large part by racial attitudes and self perceptions that had been defined by the dominant white culture. Thus the quest for black equal rights faced double obstacles in Charleston: the coercive mechanisms of the segregationist South, such as white control of police, politics, and the economy; and the subtle yet powerful forces of ideas, values, and pervasive cultural symbols which conditioned blacks to feel inferior and whites superior.
In the 1950s, Charleston's branch of the NAACP, encouraged by racial changes on a regional and national level, issued legal challenges to white supremacy, but the city's white establishment successfully resisted this pressure. The efforts of local NAACP were hampered by class divisions within city's African-American community that both reflected and reinforced the hegemonic control of whites. In the 1960s, black students initiated direct action protests, often against the advice or direction of the older generation of NAACP leaders. These protests began to undermine the psychological bases of racial behavior for many blacks, although they did not win many substantive changes for black equality. On the other hand, federal pressure was the greatest force in ending segregation in Charleston, but federally mandated racial change could not lift the burden of three hundred years of inherited racial custom.
In 1969 a labor strike by over four hundred poor, black hospital workers transformed race relations in Charleston. Months of protests in support of the workers unified the black community across class lines and dispelled many of the myths that had helped to buttress the racial status quo. The strike also promoted younger black leaders who appealed to black pride in a way that challenged white hegemony. The hospital strike also produced more tangible benefits. In the 1970s black voter registration increased, and the emergence of an independent black electorate opened a formerly closed political system.
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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.
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