Jerry Gershenhorn: Louis Austin–A Courageous Voice for Black Freedom in North Carolina

Louis Austin and the Carolina Times by Jerry Gershenhorn Today we welcome a guest post from Jerry Gershenhorn, author of Louis Austin and the Carolina Times:  A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle, just published by UNC Press.

Louis Austin (1898–1971) came of age at the nadir of the Jim Crow era and became a transformative leader of the long black freedom struggle in North Carolina. From 1927 to 1971, he published and edited the Carolina Times, the preeminent black newspaper in the state. He used the power of the press to voice the anger of black Carolinians, and to turn that anger into action in a forty-year crusade for freedom. In this biography, Jerry Gershenhorn chronicles Austin’s career as a journalist and activist, highlighting his work during the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar civil rights movement. In examining Austin’s life, Gershenhorn is able to tell the story of the long black freedom struggle in North Carolina from a new vantage point, shedding new light on the vitality of black protest and the black press in the twentieth century.

Louis Austin and the Carolina Times is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Louis Austin: A Courageous Voice for Black Freedom in North Carolina

As we near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, black American activists are fighting for racial justice in the nation’s political, economic, educational, and justice systems. Meanwhile, the enemies of racial equality pursue policies to suppress the black vote, incarcerate more African Americans, and continue policies that disproportionately impoverish African Americans. Furthermore, powerful government officials attack the media in a transparent attempt to weaken the ability of the media to tell the truth about policies that would perpetuate inequality in America.

These are not new issues. During the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, black activists engaged in a long freedom struggle against a broad range of racial injustices, some that were not so different from today’s.  In North Carolina, a key leader who challenged white supremacy emerged in 1927, when Louis Austin purchased the Carolina Times, Durham’s black news weekly, and transformed the paper in to a trumpet for justice. In doing so, he provided a voice for the black community, during a time when white newspapers regularly ignored or demonized black people in their pages. An extraordinarily outspoken and dynamic leader, Austin fearlessly attacked anyone, including prominent blacks and whites, who stood in the way of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all people. He exemplified the Carolina Times’s motto, “The Truth Unbridled.”

During the 1930s, Austin initiated a new strategy in the black freedom struggle, as he employed legal tactics to challenge segregation and counseled African Americans to leave the Republican Party for the Democratic Party to increase black political influence in the one-party state. Austin led voter registration drives, campaigned for public office, pursued integration of higher education in the courts, lobbied for equal pay for black teachers and equal funding for black schools, demanded equal economic opportunity for African Americans, and denounced police brutality. In 1933, Austin, black attorneys Conrad Pearson and Cecil McCoy, and a young man who hoped to become a pharmacist, Thomas Raymond Hocutt, filed the first lawsuit to integrate higher education in the South, when they sued the University of North Carolina. Although the case was unsuccessful in the short run, it was an important start to the two-decade legal struggle that achieved success in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark Supreme Court case that overturned legal segregation of southern public schools.  In 1934, Austin was elected justice of the peace as a Democrat in 1934, a victory that was hailed by the Pittsburgh Courier as the beginning of the New Deal in the South. The following year, Austin co-founded the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA), which promoted black political participation and worked to improve black life in Durham.

During World War II, Austin was the leading North Carolina advocate for the Double V strategy, fighting for victory at home against racist injustice, while supporting U.S. efforts against the Axis powers abroad. Unlike many black leaders in North Carolina, who refused to employ confrontational tactics, Austin backed A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement, which compelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order, banning racial discrimination in defense plants. Austin also denounced the U.S. armed forces’ racially oppressive treatment of black soldiers as “unsafe, unsound and damnable.” In 1944, Austin revitalized the Durham branch of the NAACP after a white bus driver murdered a black soldier. The bus driver, who was exonerated by an all-white jury, shot the soldier, for objecting to Jim Crow seating on the bus. Austin’s wartime use of the politics of protest helped lay the groundwork for the postwar Civil Rights Movement.

The decade leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision was pivotal for the black freedom struggle. In 1945, Austin staged the first campaign in the twentieth century by an African American to win a seat on the Durham city council. Although he lost, his campaign laid the groundwork for the election of the first black member of the Durham city council in 1953. Austin fought for integrated public facilities, organizing an integrated football game in Durham, which national newspapers pronounced the first racially integrated football game in the South.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Austin joined with a new generation of activists who fought for integration of public schools, lunch counters, and restaurants; equal access to employment opportunities; and voting rights. Unlike many black leaders, he immediately embraced a Durham sit-in that began in 1957, three years before the more celebrated Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. Austin publicized sit-ins, boycotts, and marches, and serving as an important advisor to young activists. He backed a boycott of white retail businesses that refused to hire black workers by publishing the names of those businesses in the Carolina Times. This strategy helped compel white businesses to hire African Americans.

Austin worked relentlessly for public school integration, as North Carolina government officials implemented policies to delay enforcement of the Brown decision. When southern white conservatives cried out for states’ rights in rejecting the Brown decision, Austin denounced their claim as a sham, asserting that states’ rights meant “the right . . . to compel Negroes to go to inferior schools. . . .  It means the right to attack and rape Negro women . . . . It even means the right to lynch, to force Negroes to enlist in the armed service, fight for democracy and then deny them the fruits of their sacrifices.” During the mid-1960s, Austin’s efforts along with those of thousands of freedom fighters compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. called the black press “the conscience of our nation.” He explained, “It has become angry for people who dare not express anger themselves. It has cried for Negroes when the hurt was so great that tears could not be shed. . . .  It has been a crusading press and that crusade has, from its beginning in 1827, been the cry of ‘Freedom.’” In defining the role of the black press, Dr. King perfectly described the role played by Louis Austin and the Carolina Times, which voiced the anger of black Carolinians, and turned that anger into action, in a forty-year crusade for freedom.


Jerry Gershenhorn is Julius L. Chambers Professor of History at North Carolina Central University.  Follow him on Twitter.