Considering today’s increased racial awareness, Virginia should demonstrate its positive commitment to social justice by honoring an unjustly overlooked black civil rights leader, Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne.
For almost two decades of his adult life, “Hawsie” fearlessly fought a dangerous and lonely battle for social change in Southside Virginia, in an era when few dared challenge the controlling white power structure.
In spring, 1965, the 42-year-old Hawthorne gave up his radio and television repair business in Kenbridge to devote his life full time to civil rights in counties where poverty, racial discrimination, Massive Resistance and Ku Klux Klan sentiment were deeply entrenched.
As the uncompromising chairman of the Lunenburg County NAACP, the Victoria native faced a daunting task: one fourth of all black families in Southside earned less than $1,000 annually, mostly in menial, tobacco-related jobs. The black student school dropout rate averaged 70 percent, and even though blacks composed about 50 percent of the population, only 18 percent were registered to vote, due in part to county registrars who purposefully kept random, unannounced working hours.
Worse, in spite of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many blacks in the area had simply accepted the ingrained prejudice and resigned themselves to plantation-style dependence and second class citizenship.
“I’m surprised at the opposition I get from blacks,” Hawthorne told an Associated Press reporter in December 1966 of the biracial hostility he experienced, “Some of them depend on the white power structure for jobs and worry only about themselves, not about civil rights.”
Hawthorne was a veteran who drew military disability after contracting malaria fighting in World War II. His wife, Sarah, worked full time, and they owned their own home, so they were one of the very few Southside black families not reliant on the area’s white upper classes for their livelihood.
Despite being a veteran, and living in the area his entire life, he was rarely acknowledged on the street. He claimed blacks and whites avoided him out of contempt for what he stood for; others feared reprisal from the Klan, which in the mid-1960s was regrouping in the area. He told the AP that only one white man — a Victoria snack shop owner — was willing to speak with him publicly.
Still, he doggedly exercised influence on the black community and slowly started changing attitudes.
In September 1965, an NAACP door-to-door campaign increased black enrollment at previously white schools from 16 to 110.
He and the Virginia Students Civil Rights Committee worked to enforce Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which ensured equal access for blacks at restaurants and businesses. They forced recalcitrant county voting registrars to expand their hours. Over the next year, another door-to-door campaign resulted in hundreds of local blacks registered to vote.
Hawthorne teamed with the NAACP legal defense fund to successfully fight against tuition grant payments to segregated private schools.
In 1968 he won a lawsuit against the Kenbridge Recreation Association (which had received federal money for renovations) for illegally barring blacks from membership — one of the first lawsuits of its kind in Virginia. And in September 1968, he organized a 10-day picket of the Kenbridge Post newspaper for segregating news columns and classified ads.
Hawthorne endured not just ostracism but death threats and harassment from North Carolina Klansmen, local police and gun-wielding white locals. In November 1965, a car containing three white men drove past his Victoria office and opened fire with a shotgun, damaging Hawthorne’s car and injuring a young black bystander, Alfonzo Stokes. Hawthorne frequently had someone follow him home in the evenings.
“I have been beaten up and put in jail on false charges and my car has been shot up by the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 22, 1968.
“… My home has been broken into and notes were left telling me what was going to happen to me and my family if I did not stop working in Civil Rights.” He told Dr. King that by 1968, his life had been threatened 13 times.
Despite the threats and declining health, Hawthorne fought his lonely fight into the mid-1970s. “Someone’s got to do it,” he told the AP, “The way things are now, about all a Negro kid can do after he’s finished with his schooling is walk the streets.”
He died of an asthma-induced heart attack on June 9, 1975.
Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne deserves, especially now, enduring recognition for his diligent work fighting racism in Virginia’s Southside.