The Quest for Freedom in the Post-'Brown' South: Desegregation and White Self-Interest

68 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2011

Date Written: 1994


Many scholars have examined the dynamics of racial change in the post-“Brown v. Board of Education” South and have identified a wide variety of factors contributing to the speed with which southern communities desegregated their schools and public accommodations. Some scholars have focused on the role of national civil rights leaders or on the actions of national civil rights organizations. In recent years, however, an increasing number of scholars have focused on the dynamics of racial change in particular individual communities, recognizing that much of the desegregation in the post-“Brown” South took place independent of national civil rights organizations and leaders.

This Article focuses on the school desegregation experience in Charlotte, North Carolina. The focus on Charlotte permits an examination of the process of racial change in the moderate South. Some scholars who have examined the black freedom struggle in the moderate South have concluded that expressions of moderation actually served to inhibit racial change by establishing a veneer of racial liberalism that helped defuse efforts to secure greater integration. Such conclusions are borne out in many southern cities, where expressions of moderation masked a desire to preserve traditional racial patterns of separation and where early, but token, desegregation deflected attention to more recalcitrant southern communities.

In many moderate southern cities, including Charlotte, white elites, especially business leaders, played critical roles in facilitating limited racial integration as a means of preserving a strong business environment, while using token integration to deflect demands for more extensive desegregation.

The desegregation experience in Charlotte confirms, in large measure, the conclusions of those who have noted the correlation between the success of desegregation initiatives and a community understanding that economic goals were more important than adherence to traditional racial patterns. At the heart of Charlotte's acquiescence in limited desegregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s lies its white business elite's desire to retain control over the city's carefully nurtured public image. Charlotte desegregated its schools and public accommodations ahead of many other southern cities, but did so in significant measure because such desegregation served the self-interest of the city's economic and political elites.

Keywords: Charlotte, North Carolina, school desegregation, public accommodations segregation, school busing, southern white moderates, white self-interest, Brown v. Board of Education

Suggested Citation

Douglas, Davison M., The Quest for Freedom in the Post-'Brown' South: Desegregation and White Self-Interest (1994). Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 70, 1994, William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-62, Available at SSRN:

Davison M. Douglas (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

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