When Velma took a stand: Statesville voters ousted council when it tried to integrate public pools

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2017

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
Imagine my surprise a while back when I received out of the blue an email from a complete stranger, a South Iredell High School student named Andrew.
He informed me he was writing an entry in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library’s Profiles in Courage Essay Contest. He was emailing to ask my approval to do the project.
Andrew had decided to write his essay about my mother and circumstances which occurred over half a century ago.
Exchanging correspondence via the world wide web for an hour or so, I provided some personal information he desired as background for his paper. He thanked me, stating he would send me his finished product.
Several weeks passed. I forgot all about our internet meeting — that is, until another email popped up with his essay entry.
I share it with his permission. He asked only that I not use his full name.
Velma Cline: A Woman Ahead of Her Time
“August of 1963 was a watershed month in American politics. Across the nation the issue of Civil Rights and racial inequality grabbed headlines. Many towns throughout the South found themselves on the front line of the Civil Rights debate.
“One such town was Statesville, North Carolina. Earlier that month, the Statesville City Council had voted to integrate the city’s two public swimming pools. This decision was supported by the council’s only female member, Velma Cline.
“Within the next month, many outraged citizens of Statesville (then known as the City of Progress) voted to recall all six members of the City Council, including Mrs. Cline. She had demonstrated great courage by voting to integrate the public pools. This decision cost Mrs. Cline her council seat and endangered her family’s safety.
“Velma Cline served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and had moved to her husband’s hometown of Statesville. Her husband, Robert P. Cline, had first won a seat on the City Council in 1961, then followed with a victory in the 1963 primary.
“But before the May general election, he passed away. At his request, she promised she would run for his council seat. According to the then election rules, the only way she could participate in the general election would be as a write-in candidate, otherwise Mr. Cline’s seat would be appointed by the Mayor and five victorious council members of the election.
“So, Mrs. Cline had to run against Mr. Cline. She received 1,789 votes to her late husband’s 849, becoming the first female to win a seat on the town’s governing body.
“Many towns, including Statesville, operated public swimming pools during the summer months. Statesville had two pools, one for whites and one for blacks. Even though the law stated that the facilities must integrate, a number of cities closed both their pools instead of having to follow the law.
“Despite the March on Washington, all the national attention on Civil Rights would prove futile if state and local governments continued to fight reforms. True progress could happen only if local governments embraced Civil Rights efforts instead of resisting them.
“With this in mind, the City Council elected in May 1963 unanimously voted to open both pools to all people regardless of race. Councilwoman Cline could have abstained or voted against the motion, but in an example of courage, voted yes to integrate the swimming pools.
“This angered many white residents into action against the newly-elected City Council.
“In his book, Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy wrote, “The third and most significant source of pressures which discourage political courage in the conscientious Senator is the pressure of his constituency to cope with such pressures, to defy them or even to satisfy them, a formidable task.”
“Velma Cline felt tremendous negative pressure from her constituents following her vote for integration. She was at this time a recently widowed woman in a small Southern town, raising her twelve-year-old son, working as a legal secretary as well as sitting on the City Council.
“A minority herself in the male dominant business world of the early 1960s. As the governing body’s only female, she demonstrated great courage by her voting decision. In addition to threatening her political future, the anger of citizens threatened the safety of herself and her son.
“In response to the Council’s decision, a petition was started to force a recall election of the six city council members (the Mayor was excluded). Needed were 556 signatures to initiate the recall. The petition gathered 827.
“A special election was schedule for September 19, 1963, in which the fates of all six members were to be decided. Council members were the targets of “vicious pressure” ahead of the election. Councilwoman Cline received numerous telephone calls of a “threatening vulgar nature” and was forced to vacate her home due to these threats.
“She was concerned for not only her safety, but for her son’s as well. Now an eighth-grader, he was the victim at school of bullying because of the controversy.
“The story of Cline’s steadfastness as an elected official parallels that of Senator Lucius Lamar. As detailed in Profiles in Courage, Senator Lamar represented Mississippi during Reconstruction. He tried to bind the nation’s wounds after the Civil War.
“Like Velma Cline, he drew great criticism from citizens for voting in what he believed were the best interests of the nation, in leaving old prejudices behind. Lamar’s actions in the Senate made it certain that he would most likely be a one term Senator, but somehow he was reelected. Mrs. Cline would not be as fortunate.
“The 1963 Statesville City Council recall election garnered a record setting turnout of 4,771 voters, more than 53 percent of those registered. Cline lost to her opponent by more than one thousand votes. All six members of the Council were voted out of office. This was the first and only recall of an entire governing body in North Carolina history.
“The newly elected City Council of September 1963 closed down both swimming pools for two years, finally reopening both pools as integrated facilities.
“Velma Cline’s life went on, rearing her son and working for the same legal firm until 2002, in which she retired after forty-five years of service. She then moved to Salisbury to live with her son and daughter-in-law. She passed away in 2011, at the age of ninety one.
“Throughout our history, our nation has been at many crossroads that had profound effects on the direction and future of the country. Statesmen and stateswomen have guided our nation through these decisions, choosing to do the best they could for their country, putting those needs ahead of their own political agendas.
The decision by the 1963 Statesville City Council to integrate the town’s two pools may not have been a national monument, but certainly one worth remembering.
I admire Velma Cline for her courage, standing up for what she thought was best for her city, even though it brought her much discomfort. Fifty years after the fact, her stand on the issue of those days remains the correct one. It would be difficult today to say it wasn’t.”
Andrew, my mom would be honored. Thank you.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 to present day.