Dr. Reginald Armistice Hawkins

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Dr. Reginald Armistice Hawkins seared his name into N.C. and local history, the first black person to run for governor in North Carolina since Reconstruction and the father of Charlotte's civil rights movement.

Doc Hawkins, as friends knew him, died Monday at Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy. Funeral arrangements were incomplete. He was 83.

In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Hawkins cut a controversial figure.

He was a dentist and ordained minister whose passion was the fight for civil rights. He didn't speak to people in a crowd -- he shouted at them, waving his arms and moving about the stage like an evangelist. He didn't read from a prepared text -- he winged it, with a blazing oratory and machine-gun delivery that audiences loved.

He fought to desegregate Charlotte's schools, hotels and restaurants, to open up North Carolina's medical establishments, to break down barriers at the main branch of the YMCA.

He was outspoken and blunt, setting many white people on edge and alienating some blacks.

But he won a lot of battles, and a lot of followers.

"Dr. Hawkins was a real pioneer, a fearless civil rights worker," said Harvey Gantt, Charlotte's first African American mayor and himself a civil rights pioneer. "He called it as he saw it."

"He was an institution ... both on the professional front and on the political front," said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte. "He was out there setting the precedent for us. Long before it was fashionable for an African American to run for political office, Hawk was out there as a candidate."

Controversial stands

Hawkins was born in Beaufort, N.C., in 1923 on Armistice Day, thus his middle name. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II and graduated from Johnson C. Smith University. In 1945, after his first year in dental school at Howard University, he married Catherine Richardson, also a JCSU graduate. He earned his dental degree from Howard in 1948, a bachelor of divinity degree from JCSU in 1956 and a master's of divinity from JCSU in 1973.

In 1961, Hawkins led a controversial two-week boycott of what was then Irwin Avenue Junior High School. He told students to stay home rather than attend a second-rate facility: "Tell them you're sick of segregation and hand-me-down-itis."

By 1963, Hawkins was a household name in Charlotte. Though physically short and stocky, he towered above a crowd.

"We are not going to cooperate anymore with segregation," he shouted from the steps of the county courthouse at a May 1963 rally. "...We shall not be pacified with gradualism; we shall not be satisfied with tokenism. We want freedom and we want it now."

Hawkins believed black-voter registration was a key to political power. In 1964, he was accused of registering five black persons who failed to pass literacy and reading tests. He spent two days in jail rather than post $5,000 bond.

"I am truly a political prisoner fighting for civil rights for Negroes," Hawkins said from jail.

Broad implications

The criminal case against Hawkins had broad implications. His attorneys got the indictments dismissed on grounds that the grand jury was illegally constituted, and the court forced the county to revamp its system of selecting grand juries.

Hawkins called it "a scheme to subtly disenfranchise the black, low-income people in this county by devious means."

Observer editors then labeled Hawkins a militant. City officials faulted him for what they called counterproductive tactics.

"He did make people uncomfortable," said Gantt, who met Hawkins in 1965. "... Civil rights rubbed a lot of people the wrong way."

In November 1965, Hawkins' house was bombed, along with the homes of black civil rights activists Kelly Alexander, Fred Alexander and Julius Chambers. He got harassing telephone calls and gunshots at his house.

He had four children -- Pauletta, Reggie Jr., Wayne and Lorena -- and he worried about their safety. But he believed so strongly in what he was doing, he persisted.

It took him six years and a federal court order, but in 1966 he finally gained membership to the N.C. Dental Society at its annual meeting in Pinehurst.

In 1968 he announced his candidacy for governor at age 44.

Political pundits theorized that Hawkins hoped to increase black-voter registration in the primary, affording blacks a strong bargaining position.

But Hawkins contended he was in the race to win: "I am not seeking a seat at the bargaining table. I am seeking a seat in the Governor's Mansion. Too long have black people sought a place at the bargaining table, only to receive the crumbs after dinner is over."

He knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped organize the March on Washington in 1968 as a high-profile activist and member of the United Presbyterian Church's Commission of Religion and Race.

On the day King was shot, King had originally been scheduled to be in North Carolina to speak for Hawkins' gubernatorial campaign. "The establishment has discounted the poor, the black, the low-income and liberal whites," he told supporters in Chapel Hill then. "It has been divide and conquer. This is the dream I have for North Carolina: to bring us together, black and white."

But his campaign was unsuccessful. In November 1971, he announced again for governor. This time, few people took him seriously. But he had an irrepressible desire to stay out in public, and a big ego.

"I've been trying to bring people together all my life, and I've suffered just like Jesus," he said.

As important as politics was in Hawkins' life, so, too, was his religion. He served as pastor of H.O. Graham Metropolitan United Presbyterian Church and interim pastor at several other churches.

Hawkins played a very public role in Charlotte life and suffered a very public tragedy. His daughter Pauletta was shot and paralyzed, and her three small children killed, in an execution-style attack in 1973 on a Muslim center in Washington, where she lived.

"I fought to do away with hatred," Hawkins once said. "To see it coming back, just tears me apart. America has lost its soul. Nobody cares about anybody else.... We're turning on ourselves."

In more recent years, he thought of himself as an elder statesman in the fight for justice.

How would he like to be remembered? The usually talkative Hawkins gave a simple answer:

"Having made a difference ... And having the guts to have tried."

Published in Charlotte Observer on Sept. 11, 2007
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