After everything happened that fall of 1965 — all the headlines and the hate and the firebombings — Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick moved out west and spent 25 years as an educator in Oregon, figuring most folks in his hometown of Charlotte had forgotten about him.
He rarely shared the details of what he endured. Rarely spoke of how, as a kid from Grier Heights who grew up in a tight-knit Black family, he made the decision to leave the all-Black Second Ward High School and transfer to Myers Park.
- Or how he’d scored 19 touchdowns that year and led the Mustangs to an undefeated season.
- Or that his exclusion from the Shrine Bowl had triggered a series of events that led to, among other things, the desegregation of the annual all-star game between North and South Carolina.
What’s happening: Today the Charlotte Sports Foundation is making sure high school football players in Mecklenburg County never forget Kirkpatrick’s name. They’re creating the Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick Award to be given each year to a senior football player from CMS who “displays talent both on the field and a passion for their community.”
- The award, sponsored by Dr Pepper, comes with a $10,000 scholarship.
Why it matters: The arc of a great civil rights leader’s life has its lonely periods. But now, Kirkpatrick’s legacy will live on every year with this scholarship.
- “For a long period of my life, living out on the West Coast, I thought that the Jimmie Kirkpatrick story was long-buried,” Kirkpatrick told me last week.
The big picture: Charlotte’s done a decent job of honoring its civil rights-era legends. Harvey Gantt, the first Black mayor, has a museum dedicated in his honor. Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, who integrated schools while being pelted with spit, still has an outsized influence. People filled Johnson C. Smith’s chapel in January 2020 to remember Charles Jones, a Freedom Rider and longtime neighborhood advocate.
- And just this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools renamed Vance High School to Julius Chambers High, in honor of the Charlotte attorney who argued the landmark Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court.
Kirkpatrick’s story is intertwined with those.
Backstory: In the fall of 1965, Kirkpatrick was at the center the city’s conversations on race when he made the transfer from Second Ward to Myers Park. “Half the community wanted me to go to Myers Park and half didn’t,” he says now.
- To this day his friends argue over whether he should or shouldn’t have.
- He worried then about linemen who might refuse to block for him. He worried about boos and racist comments. But he never worried about his ability.
- He shined that year, leading Myers Park to an undefeated season and earning All-American honors.
- Still, he was left out of the Shrine Bowl because of his skin color.
The young Black lawyer who took up Kirkpatrick’s case and sued on his behalf: Julius Chambers.
On November 19, 1965, a judge gave a mixed ruling: Kirkpatrick would still be banned from the game, but officials were required to desegregate the contest in future years. It was the smallest symbolic step toward progress that a sport could make, and still it ticked off racists.
- Three nights later, they firebombed four houses, including Chambers’. If you want to go see one, the home of civil rights activist Reginald Hawkins, it’s still there in McCrorey Heights.
- While Charlotte’s leaders denounced the bombings publicly the next day, their commitment to ending racism stopped well short of success.
- In his book “The Dream Long Deferred,” Frye Gaillard writes that the white supremacists who bombed the homes, “understood something else as well. Many whites, many thousands in fact, who lacked the boldness, the commitment, or the final edge of meanness to experiment with dynamite shared, nevertheless, a night rider’s rage at the gathering black momentum.”
After high school, Kirkpatrick went to Perdue, then moved to California, then to Oregon as a teacher, coach and administrator. He shared his story in bits and pieces, but really didn’t even tell much to his own family.
- “They were like old war stories,” he says. “I did speak to the issues a lot in the classroom, but never talked about my story.”
People started talking about it for him around the 50th anniversary of that season. In 2014, the Observer’s Gary Schwab published one of the more memorable pieces of local journalism in the past decade. It’s the story of how Jimmie Lee reconnected with Myers Park classmate De Kirkpatrick, a white man.
- During a conversation they learned that De’s ancestors had enslaved Jimmie’s.
- Their tale is being made into a documentary film.
What’s next: A panel consisting of people from CSF, CMS and the community will pick the winner each year. They’ll judge the students based on athletic achievement and community impact.
- A bronze bust in Kirkpatrick’s likeness will be presented to the winner each year, with their name inscribed.
- “He is a trailblazer in every sense of the word and we hope his story
continues to inspire generations of Charlotteans,” CSF executive director Danny Morrison said in a statement.