Working for Racial Justice in the 60’s in the South by Harry Smith

 

WORKING FOR RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE 1960’s

During the efforts to achieve equal rights for African-Americans across the South during the Civil Rights struggle, CORE The Congress on Racial Equality) decided to focus its efforts on several communities, including Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the location of the University of North Carolina.

Campus ministers at UNC participated in a variety of ways to support what the students and CORE workers were doing to achieve equal treatment in local eating establishments, theatres, and motels.  Strategies included staging sit-ins in restaurants and undergoing arrest to emphasize the need for a Public Accommodation Law.

I recall one evening when the students were focusing their efforts on Brady’s Restaurant.  After the mixed group of students had been refused service, the police were called to arrest them for trespassing.  Facing arrest, the students “went limp” and were lying about the floor of the restaurant.  Mrs. Brady, who was not known for her liberal views, decided to dramatize her contempt for the students’ effort by straddling one of the students and urinating on his face.

Later the students were discussing what charges, if any, they might bring against Mrs. Brady for this gross and demeaning act.  Someone suggested “Assault with a Deadly Weapon” while another recommended “Breaking and Entering.”

I was deeply impressed by the students’ ability to respond to the hostility their actions provoked and to use humor to cope with the tensions which they were experiencing.

At one point, following a series of arrests for civil disobedience, one of the students, who held one of the University’s most prestigious scholarships as a Morehead Scholar, was ordered to appear before the Honor Council to face possible expulsion for his violations of the law.

The Honor Council had the responsibility of determining whether John’s civil disobedience leading to his arrest constituted “conduct unbecoming a Carolina gentleman.”

It was a very important moment in the University’s history when the Honor Council voted that under the prevailing circumstances such conduct was, indeed, not “unbecoming” but completely justified and that all charges against John should be dismissed.

Subsequently, knowing that his actions might mean the loss of his Morehead Scholarship, John went to Selma and was later incarcerated in the State Penitentiary in Raleigh.  I recall taking a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison for him to read in prison, much to the puzzlement and consternation of the prison officials.

Upon learning that the City of Chapel Hill was planning to open a new municipal cemetery out on the Durham Highway, the campus ministers led the effort to insure that it would not be segregated.  Drawing up a petition, we sought the signatures of the various ministers in area churches.

Unfortunately, we encountered some opposition and a refusal to sign by the Lutheran minister who said he “believed in the separation of church and state,” by the Baptist minister who had the local mortician in his congregation and did not wish to get involved in his business, and the Methodist minister who said he no longer signed petitions after an unfortunate experience in a previous charge.

Undaunted, we took the petition with as many names of religious leaders as we could muster to the City Council meeting.  We were informed that the sale of cemetery lots was a business matter and that most people were very concerned about insuring that their property would not be devalued by unacceptable neighbors.  We pointed out that most burials took place without knowledge of who was buried in adjacent lots, but to no avail.  Furthermore, we were informed there would probably not be enough demand for burial in an unsegregated cemetery to justify integrating it.

After much discussion, the Council offered a compromise.  They would designate an integrated area of the new cemetery if we could get someone to consent to be buried in the unsegregated section.

Fortunately, we learned that a retired economics professor from the University of Chicago had been diagnosed as having terminal cancer and would be glad to pioneer our effort to insure that the new cemetery would be integrated. As luck would have, Mary’s cancer went into remission and she did not die until much later.  By then, the City Council had agreed that the cemetery should indeed by integrated, making further action unnecessary.

Needless to say, this episode provoked a number of dubious comments, about our “unsuccessful undertaking,” the “grave issues we had raised,” and the “controversial ministerial plot” that we had perpetrated.

Fortunately,  changes in the racial atmosphere and the eventual passage of the federal Public Accomodations Law and the Civil Rights Act, moved us far beyond the discrimination of events in 1963 and 1964 in Chapel Hill.

 

–1998, written in response to an NCMA request for anecdotes for a collection that was never published.

 

 

 

 

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