‘What did not change, was racism’: A conversation with Charlotte civil rights icon Harvey Gantt

‘What did not change, was racism’: A conversation with Charlotte civil rights icon Harvey Gantt
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We’ve come for lunch, but all they’re serving is breakfast.

It’s almost noon on June 23, one day after four people were killed on Beatties Ford Road, two days after Father’s Day, four weeks after the George Floyd protests began, 37 years after he became Charlotte’s first Black mayor, 57 years after he became the first Black student to attend Clemson, 60 years after he was a high school kid sneaking out of his house to lead the sit-in movement in Charleston, and one day too soon for the lunch menu.

“I think we’ll have lunch here tomorrow,” the server tells us. Community Matters Café is still early in its reopening stages, and the breakfast menu is running all day.

“OK, that’s fine,” Harvey Gantt says, leaning back to decide between pancakes and French toast. “We’ll make it work.”

Progress can be like that. Even for Harvey Gantt, a civil rights icon who’s given more of his life to Charlotte than just about anyone in the past century, sometimes there aren’t exceptions.

I’d asked him to our “breakfast/lunch,” as we’d call it, not for a specific reason, but for perspective. This has been no ordinary year in Charlotte, from coronavirus to the protests to the mass shooting on Beatties Ford on Juneteenth weekend. But if anyone understands upheaval periods, if anyone understands how the events of today fit among the events of yesterday and tomorrow, it’s Harvey Gantt. He, of all people who live in this city that’s grown by almost 200 percent since he moved here 50 years ago, would have some wisdom.

“I think we’ll always remember what you were doing in 2020, what you were doing pre-2020, and what you were doing after 2020,” the 77-year-old says. “We’re eating differently. We’re approaching people differently. I find myself tipping more than I used to tip. Everything is changed.”

Change has been a steady force in Gantt’s life. He was just 11, he remembers, when the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional. He was 17 when he was among a group of high school students who sat down at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter in Charleston on April 1, 1960. He was barely 20 when he stood in front of hundreds of white people on his way to become the first Black student at Clemson, following a long court battle. He was the same age when he met his future wife, Lucinda, when she became the second Black Clemson student the following fall. He was 31 when he was appointed to Charlotte’s city council in 1974, and 40 when he became the first Black mayor.

Very few people have done more to build this city, socially, politically, and physically. The architecture firm he co-founded, Gantt Huberman Architects, created the Charlotte Transportation Center, TransAmerica Square, and ImaginOn, among other buildings.

He also has one of the famous defeats in North Carolina political history. In 1990, Gantt ran for U.S. Senate against Jesse Helms. Gantt built his campaign around helping forgotten people, white and Black, throughout the state. And it worked. He was leading in the polls heading into the last week. Then Helms released an ad that became the modern standard for racism in campaigns: It was 30 seconds of video of a white person’s hands crumpling up a piece of paper. “You needed that job,” the narrator says, “but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.”

Helms came back to win the election. Gantt won too, though, if you count things like dignity and admiration from future generations.

It’s remarkable how much is different now, but also how much isn’t.

Gantt still plays tennis and golf. His schedule never slows down. This year he took a role as a leader of the Charlotte Moves Task Force, formed to advise city council as it develops a strategic plan for transportation and mobility for the future. More than that, he’s taken to mentoring a few of Charlotte’s younger politicians, including councilman Braxton Winston.

Throughout our breakfast/lunch, people passing our table stop to wave and say, “Hello, Mr. Gantt.” He’s still a presence, watching over Charlotte, hoping it keeps moving forward. He has a personal interest in that continued progress now, with nine grandchildren.

That’s where I’ll turn this over to him, talking about them, his favorite people. Here is Harvey Gantt, the civil rights hero and former mayor and, perhaps just as important as any of the rest, grandfather. These are his words, lightly edited for clarity.


Harvey Gantt

Courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture

As told to Michael Graff

My kids and grandkids came to see me on Father’s Day. We sat in the backyard, chairs spread out, and shared cards. I think a lot about their future. I think about the world that they’re growing up in here and the world they’re going to make for themselves, and I pray that they make it better.

I pray that their tapes, or their history, are not going to be as trying as mine. The tapes I have are different from my parents and my parents’ parents, and great-grandparents, who were all slaves.

I said to them in that same Father’s Day gathering, I can see in every single one of you the same values that your parents passed on to you and that I passed on to them. And that is ultimately the satisfaction you get from being a parent. Sometimes you can pass on some pretty bad traits, too. But those traits that want to build a better world, where you respect people, where you really have an understanding of who your neighbor is, and I see those values. That’s just in my backyard.

My grandkids talk about their friends in school, and they don’t talk about them in terms of Black and white kids. Especially the younger ones. My wife will often say, I wonder if that was a white kid that said that. But to my nine-year-old, she doesn’t make that distinction unless I ask her. That’s a big difference.

When I went to school, all the kids were Black. When my kids went, it was a little more desegregated. Now they’re going to school and all the kids may be Black because that progression has occurred, or it may be very much mixed. But more interesting to me is that they don’t pay as much attention, the younger they are, to the color of your skin. That’s progress.

Some of the (older) grandkids joined the protests here in Charlotte. And they didn’t really ask permission.

They told us they were going to join. They didn’t tell their Granddaddy. They told their parents. And they didn’t just do it one day. They were out there. We prayed that they wouldn’t get caught up in teargas and all that, and they didn’t. They all in their own special way said they were enriched by it.

I was pleased that they did it without anybody encouraging them to do it. Even though their grandparents did those things, we find ourselves not championing that you need to march. But you do need to care about community and what’s going on.

The George Floyd moment (of my childhood) really was the moment that the Supreme Court, when I was an 11-year-old kid, said that segregation was wronnng.

The multiple changes that we did make — the rise of Martin Luther King, the determination of the NAACP, the change of laws on the books, the politics that was played, the big victory of ’64 and ’65 civil rights acts — it was not easy. We desegregated schools. And that was trauma for a lot of the pioneers, the Dorothy Counts (who integrated Harding High in Charlotte in 1957) of the world.

Harvey Gantt after becoming mayor

Gantt celebrating his 1983 victory in the mayoral race. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Observer collection in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library)

When I look back on life, I’ve thought through the years: Are we reverting back to the society that I fought, and others fought, so valiantly to change?

I’ve concluded that what we did was easy, relatively speaking. Why? We were getting the constitution and the laws on the books more in sync. So when we finally confirmed the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments, and the civil rights acts of ’64 and ’65, a lot of people thought our work was almost done. That was a certain naivete on the part of all of us.

What did not change, was racism.

The racism that’s embedded in you and me, and the latent racism that exists. The fact that kids get it early. It’s a learned response. Black kids quickly pick up that there’s a certain privilege that comes with the color of your skin, and white kids quickly learn from their parents.

Notwithstanding, if you get a President of the United States who’s Black. Didn’t matter. That’s what’s been so difficult. We have laws. We talk about equal rights. All those things are here. And no court can uphold anyone who’s a segregationist. But in reality, Michael, racism never went away.

I’m not saying racial reconciliation isn’t important. I’m saying the first step is that we want respect between the races. It’s difficult for a lot of white people to honor the fact that all men really are created equal. It’s not there. Because what’s reflected in society is that latent racism comes through, even for the best white people with the best intentions. They’re going to still be influenced to some extent by the fact that the color of their skin gives you certain privileges.

And that is the issue. That to me is the issue we’re working on today in America. That a police officer who represents the government, the society, that’s there to protect us, that there are different responses.

It’s like with Beatties Ford. Someone called me last night and said, ‘Harvey there were four people killed in Charlotte last night.’ I said, ‘Yes, there was.’ And they said, ‘Well, are you as upset about that as you are the George Floyd killing?’ I said, ‘I’m upset about any life that’s lost. But here’s the difference. For whatever reason a few crazy kids shot up a crowd full of people. If we catch them they will be held fully accountable. The thing that’s more threatening is when that policeman can sit on the neck of this guy for almost nine minutes and believe that because of the color of his skin and the color of the skin of the man he was on, that he wasn’t going to be held accountable for it. In fact, he had his hands in his pocket.’

For Black people that’s the power structure. That person in the blue uniform is the government. And the government doesn’t respect my life.

I’m simply trying to point out that what we did 60 years ago and what we’re trying to do today are two different things. 

I am encouraged by the diversity of the demonstrators, the protestors, nationwide and worldwide. But I actually want to hear … (he pauses). I wish there was a safe space for the people who are not in agreement with this.

When is there a reporter who’s going to find that community of white citizens who will out their fears? I haven’t seen an article yet that says, to a group of white citizens, maybe in an interview in a church basement or something and says, ‘Tell me what you think about all of this.’ And get a discussion going. And then say, ‘Would you be willing to sit down with a group of protesters?’ Where the environment could be reasonably safe.

Because what’s troubling is that as diverse as the protesters are and as strong as the sentiment is, I suspect there’s still a fairly significant number of people in the white community who absolutely abhor what’s going on.

I don’t think they’re a fringe element. I don’t think they’re a fringe part of the population. I think it’s important to get them into the conversation. Honesty is very important right now.

Uncomfortable conversations need to be held all over the place for this to really have any meaning. I’m shocked that NASCAR was able to do this by removing the confederate flag. But I didn’t hear anything from their true die-hard fans. There’s not all unanimity out there.

I campaigned tirelessly in white communities across North Carolina, trying to say that the policies we were talking about could be of some benefit to everybody (and saying), ‘I dare you to show me a policy Jesse Helms has got.’ He didn’t ever speak to the interest of folks. And it was confounding to me how white folks drank that Kool-Aid and they’ve been drinking it since Reconstruction, that their interests did not align with the interests of African Americans in society. That they were given one thing that they had and saw in this whole thing: Because my skin is white, I’ll be considered better than them.

Harvey Gantt runs for senate 1990

Gantt during the 1990 campaign for Senate. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Observer collection, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library)

And why is that? What do you think you lose? Is it a zero-sum game in the sense that you lose something because I’m respected and I do certain kinds of things and we compete in the same circles? You don’t think about that when you lose to somebody who’s not a person of color, whether you’re going after a job or running a race. So why is there a loss when the person is a different skin color? Why is there a perceived loss of power?

The power equation, even way back, right after slavery. Poor whites who never had a single slave were told to fear Blacks coming to power in Reconstruction. I could never understand why the interests of poor white people didn’t align with the interests, politically, of poor Black people.

They’d be very powerful. But that’s never happened in this country. That’s just been the great dividing line.

But I’m encouraged to feel as if there is something happening. That there was a reason for Obama, which caused a lot of Black people to feel good about the country, and a lot of white people, too. But we didn’t know it was going to produce Trump.

When he first announced for presidency, I thought it was a joke. But then I started seeing all these polls and I said, ‘Here’s something we didn’t realize. Here’s something that was silently creeping.’

And I suspect that, in a way, the president may be enjoying the fact that he’s down in the polls right now. Because he may understand some things about America that perhaps a lot of us don’t know so well. He may understand depths of feeling that we can’t see. That’s why I want to hear more people write about the other America. The ‘good people’ that Trump talks about that were involved in Charlottesville.

I’m always optimistic. Any mayor is always optimistic and tries to remain above the fray.

I want us to be famous for not how many high-rises we build Uptown, or how beautiful a suburban community we have, but if we can develop policies that educate our kids — all of them. And that we can raise the wealth ratio between Black and white families and we can pay livable wages and that we lead the way as being a city that’s doing that. And CEOs will look less at their bottom line and say, you know, we have a strong community because they are paying people the minimum of $18 bucks an hour. And people aren’t working four and five jobs. And we are doing what we need to do to take care of their young kids and getting them started on the road to recognizing the promise of America.

All those things, there is a social uplift, an economic uplift, that I think Charlotte could be on the front end of. It’s the right-sized city to make those kind of structural advances. The older and more mature cities have gone too far in the wrong direction. And Charlotte could be a great experimental lab.

Harvey Gantt on MLK Day 2018

Gantt speaking on a recent panel discussion. (Courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture)


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