Friday, September 18, 2009

Peace and protest, justice and injustice: marking Chapel Hill's sacred space

A little-known fact: grass used to grow around the flag pole in front of the old post office on Franklin Street. That's why those red brick pavers are there--as filler. It was only in latter times, probably since 1979 when the town purchased the property from the federal government, that the space was paved over.

Luckily for these four young men, it was grass during Holy Week in 1964 when they decided to fasten themselves to this place 24 hours a day, fasting in protest of the Town of Chapel Hill's refusal to pass a public accommodations ordinance.

Pat Cusick, LaVert Taylor, John Dunne, James Foushee (in the photo) and countless other activists will be remembered this Sunday at 3 p.m. as we unveil and formally dedicate the Peace and Justice tribute marker at the site we've named Peace and Justice Plaza.

Please join us for the celebration. Opening remarks by Mayor Kevin Foy, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, and local NAACP chapter president Michelle Laws will be followed by brief tributes to the people honored on the marker. We will also recognize Yonni Chapman, historian, for his tireless work to ensure that past struggles for civil rights in Chapel Hill are remembered. Dan Pollitt, emeritus professor in the UNC School of Law, will conclude with some personal recollections of his own experiences on the front lines of local battles for civil rights and social justice.

The marker bears the names of nine people who devoted much of their lives to working for causes of peace and social justice in our community: Charlotte Adams, Hank Anderson, James Brittian, Joe Herzenberg, Mildred Ringwalt, Hubert Robinson, Joe Straley, Lucy Straley, and Gloria Williams.

At the top of the marker is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

True peace is not simply the absence of some negative force; it is the presence of justice.

The marker is a flat granite paver, flush to the ground, directly in front of the flag pole. It is designed so that other names can be added in the future.

What's been most remarkable lately, as town employees have worked to remove one section of the brick pavers and ready the space for the installation, has been an archaeological discovery. On the concrete base that was poured to stabilize the brick pavers when they were laid, someone etched a swastika. (Click on the photo for an enlarged view; it's in the lower corner.) Emily Cameron, landscape architect for the town, puts it beautifully in perspective: "We thought it was worth noting that we have removed an historic symbol of hate and racial prejudice that had been hidden at the foot of our nation’s flag to replace it with a marker to commemorate the struggle for equality, justice, and peace."