How One Rural NC County Made Civil Rights History

May 28, 2019

Coastal Hyde County is the site of one of the longest and most successful civil rights protests in American history. In 1968 the African American community boycotted Hyde County schools in response to the county’s desegregation plan.

The board of education’s plan — created without input from the African American community — would have closed all black schools. Black families were disappointed in a plan that completely overlooked their educational heritage and protested by not sending their children to school for an entire year and participating in marches, protests and sit-ins. Demonstrators marched to Raleigh twice and persisted despite facing tear gas, angry white neighbors and even a gun battle with the Ku Klux Klan.

This weekend, North Carolina dedicated a state highway historical marker in Hyde County to commemorate this movement.

Host Frank Stasio remembers the events with Azalea Mackey, David Cecelski and Alice Spencer Mackey. Azalea Mackey and Alice Spencer Mackey were both students at the time of the boycott, and they share their memories with Stasio. Cecelski is a historian and the author of several books, including “Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South” (University of North Carolina Press/1994). He puts the Hyde County school boycott in historical context.

Interview Highlights

For the first time, I saw this really docile community that [usually] went along with the status quo decided to say: No. And usually when they said no, they meant it. - Azalea Mackey

Azalea Mackey on experiencing the school boycott as a child:

We all knew what the civil rights movement was. We saw it on TV every night. We had been through the Dr. King era and his assassination. So it just let me know that now it was going to be a part of our county.

Cecelski on how school desegregation happened in North Carolina:

When desegregation finally occurred … The pattern that began to be clear was that the African American schools were going to be closed. The black principals would be fired. Many black teachers would lose their positions. African American children … Came to feel like aliens within the new desegregated schools … What was so extraordinary to me in Hyde County is that in most places, African American communities said: This is all unfortunate, but for the greater good of bringing black and white children together in classrooms, we feel like maybe these are sacrifices we can live with. The African American community in Hyde County said: No. We believe in bringing black and white children together. But if it's going to be a one way street — if our children are going to be treated this way … Then no. We would rather keep our own schools.

Alice Spencer Mackey on what her experience was like with the movement:

When I left school, I was maybe a C, low B [student]. But when I went back to school I was making As. I had learned so much by being actually hands-on, being in the community, meeting people. It was just a great experience for me.

You have to remember that there had been very little civil rights activism of any kind in Hyde County up to this point. And then all of a sudden ... Their county was on the front page of The Washington Post and The New York Times. - David Cecelski

Azalea Mackey talks about the 50th anniversary celebration for the Hyde County school boycott:

It was a fantastic day. It was all-encompassing — learning the history, celebrating it, commemorating it, and just letting the younger generation understand that it's possible. Look what your grandmother and your grandfather and your mom did 50 years ago. So if they could do that, what can you accomplish today?