Reclaiming First-Class Citizenship: the African-American Struggle and Mobilization for Political Rights in New Bern, North Carolina (1948-1979)

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Title: Reclaiming First-Class Citizenship: the African-American Struggle and Mobilization for Political Rights in New Bern, North Carolina (1948-1979)
Author: Medlin, Karen Elizabeth
Advisors: Dr. Michael Allen, Committee Member
Dr. Walter Jackson, Committee Member
Dr. Blair Kelley, Committee Chair
Abstract: This study explores the post-World War II activism and effort among African-Americans in New Bern, North Carolina to overturn their historic role as second-class citizens. After the North Carolina disenfranchisement law was passed in 1900, which was part of a white-implemented scheme to strip African-Americans of the political rights that they had achieved during the Reconstruction era, African-Americans in New Bern were largely marginalized from the political process. Following a new race consciousness in 1948, many of the disqualified residents were determined to forge strategies to reclaim their political rights as American citizens. Between 1948 and 1979, blacks in New Bern, with little assistance from whites, determined their own terms and provided their own base of support through local grassroots organizing in order to accomplish their primary goals of equally registering, voting, running, and winning public office. Though the black community in New Bern was anything but monolithic, in the world of politics, it came together as a forceful bloc to battle white supremacy. The result was a form of social and political modernization in which African-American New Bernians were finally able to share in the fruits of democracy as well as to transform their once secondary status in society. The city of New Bern, and the premier focus of this study, is the county seat of Craven County and is situated at the confluence of the Trent and the Neuse Rivers off of the Eastern coast of North Carolina. Founded in 1710 by Swiss merchants, it is the second oldest town in the state and once served as the capital from 1746 to the end of American Revolution. Due to the surrounding rural farmland that was particularly fertile for cotton and tobacco production, Craven County boasted one of the largest slave populations in the state. New Bern, on the other hand, served as an urban escape or refuge for hundreds of slaves both before and after the American Civil War. With a sizeable population in the city in the mid to late 19th century, blacks possessed immense political power through voting and local, state, and national office-holding, making the subsequent decline in their political influence during the twentieth century most relevant and crucial for further study. To best highlight the African-American political movement in New Bern during the twentieth century, this study takes a focused look at the most viable local organizations to arise while centering on oral histories and personal accounts among the politically active non-white inhabitants. Likewise, this thesis traces the existence of local white attitudes toward black advancement through three common responses, gradual readjustment and both violent and non-violent deterrence, and how each response affected the black quest for first-class citizenship. In spite of any and all impediments, this study argues that African-American New Bernians (over several generations) remained remarkably dedicated to their long-standing aspiration to garner political power in a racially unjust atmosphere. Above all, this thesis aims to contribute to the existing historiography of the Civil Rights Movement in the South by drawing attention to a locale that was largely detached from the larger struggle in time, place, national exposure, and outside organizational assistance. Over the course of their political quest, black New Bernians were certainly assisted by national legislation such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, yet the outcome was primarily up to them as they emerged as the core directors. As this thesis argues, their struggle transcended several common historiographical restraints and thereby offers a different perspective of how local grassroots activism amid the Civil Rights Movement should be chronicled and understood.
Date: 2007-04-25
Degree: MA
Discipline: History

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