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Remembering Margaret Alexander: The mother of Charlotte’s civil rights movement

Margaret Alexander
https://www.alexanderfunerals.com/

Margaret Gilreece Alexander, affectionately called "Mother Margaret," died in her sleep last Friday at the age of 97.

Alexander was married to Kelly Alexander Sr., a prominent advocate for civil rights in North Carolina. He is also known for his strong support for the Supreme Court case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, that said busing could be used to integrate schools.

Her husband was also a state president of the NAACP and later served as board chair of the national NAACP, and she served as the executive secretary for him.

"She would proof and prepare just about all my fathers' speeches," said Kelly Alexander Jr. "He would first draft them, and she would type them up, and my brother and I would be the guinea pig audience because he liked to practice."

Additionally, Margaret Alexander organized the Friendship Junior Youth council of the NAACP, one of the first church-based junior youth councils within the organization in the country.

The younger Alexander said his mother wasn't consumed by being in the spotlight.

"She was very content to play, in her mind, a supporting role. She viewed herself as supporting her husband's civil rights activities, his business activities, and supporting her kids. What we were doing — and it was hard for her sometimes to grasp the impact that she had, especially for the younger generation," said The younger Alexander.

Margaret Alexander was born on September 20, 1924, to Alberta Alexander and Eulie Lester Gilreece Alexander. She was born and raised in a deeply segregated Charlotte and grew up in the First Ward neighborhood. Margret said during the 2001 oral history interview in a UNC Charlotte civil rights and desegregation collection that her father was an entrepreneur, and even though she lived during segregation, she didn't want for anything, and they taught her she was never below anyone else.

She graduated from Second Ward High School in 1942, the same year she met her husband when she was the school's May Queen, and he was a reporter for an African American newspaper. During her senior year, the two married when she was attending what's now North Carolina Central University. She later received her degree in commercial education.

The couple had two sons, Kelly Alexander Jr., born in 1948, who is a Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly, and Alfred L. Alexander, born in 1952, who serves as president and CEO of Alexander Funeral Home, one of the oldest Black-owned businesses in Mecklenburg County.

The younger Alexander said his mother was a significant influence on his political career. She encouraged her sons to get an education to advance themselves and advance their community.

The Alexander household was a gathering place for civil rights activists, such as Thurgood Marshall. Kelly Alexander described it as a Grand Central Station, and people would come over, to spend the night or have dinner if they traveled through Charlotte.

Because her husband was highly outspoken about racial equality, the couple knew that they could have their lives threatened.

In the 2001 oral history, Margaret Alexander talked about her life experiences during the Jim Crow era and described one of her most frightening experiences.

On a stormy night in September 1965, the Alexander family woke up to the sound of an explosion and the smell of sulfur. She saw the front door blown in and glass covering the floor. A bomb was placed by the front door. The fact that the couple and their sons were sleeping in their rooms rather than in the living room saved their lives that night.

The bombing was one of four that night that targeted civil rights activists in Charlotte.

"We have gotten telephone calls before that [the bombing], we knew we were taking a risk, but it had to be done— it was frightening but you can't live in fear,” Margaret Alexander said.

When recalling his mother's resilience, the younger Alexander said, "one of the reasons why domestic terrorists did things like that was to scare people. They especially wanted to scare women. They thought the wives would immediately start applying pressure on their husbands involved in the movement to get involved with something else."

That didn't happen in Margaret Alexander’s case.

"If anything, it strengthened her resolve to support daddy's, what he was doing in the civil rights movement, and continue what she was doing," the younger Alexander said.

She continued to counsel people and share the wealth of personal experience she had gained in almost a century of life.

"During these troubling times, to have someone be that kind of steady influence is important," said the younger Alexander.

Margaret Alexander's funeral service will be held Monday, June 13, at noon at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3301 Beatties Ford Rd., Charlotte, NC 28216.

Dante Miller is a community engagement producer for WFAE and a Report for America (RFA) Corps members. Dante first joined WFAE in 2020 through RFA to work as part of a unique partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Digital Public Library of America. Her work in that project allowed her to use radio, online stories, Wikipedia entries and events to meet the community's news and information needs.