Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Street should be named for local hero

One of the more interesting things to come out of our long discussion about whether to rename Airport Road for Martin Luther King Jr. is a forgotten bit of Chapel Hill history: Dr. King is a local hero.

Picture it 1959. "Gradualism" will longer appease, but shall it be resisted with violence or coercive nonviolence? "When we look back at history," writes Tim Tyson in his book on North Carolina civil rights activist Robert Williams,

it is important to resist the temptation to view all events as part of an inexorable chain of causality leading inevitably to the present. Nonviolent direct action was a fortunate but certainly not an inevitable course or strategy. Nor did it have deep roots in Southern black culture. Though nonviolence was compatible with the distinctive Afro-Christianity of the black South, it was not interchangeable with it. To understand its full-blown emergence with the sit-in movement in the spring of 1960, we must understand what nonviolence was and what it was not. We must understand, too, that for most black Southerners nonviolence was a tactical opportunity rather than a philosophical imperative. Thus we must reconsider that time before the sit-ins swept the South, before the founding of SNCC, before the Freedom Riders rolled through Dixie, before Albany and Birmingham and Selma etched their mark on human history, and before the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. captured the moral imagination of the world, when the course of events still might have gone quite differently.

On February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T decided to have a seat at a Greensboro lunch counter. Their action seemed to settle the question. "[T]he sudden emergence of the student movement after the Greensboro sit-ins . . . temporarily set aside the debate over violence and nonviolence and gave the battalions of nonviolent direct action their compelling historical moment," writes Tyson.

Promptly, King got on the bandwagon with a tour of southern college towns. In the previous year he had met with some followers of Gandhi in India and conducted a pilgrimage in his footsteps. This experience strengthened King's commitment to the gospel of nonviolent direct action.

On May 8-9 he came to Chapel Hill, where, already, sympathetic sit-ins had been under way. Lincoln High students had made their stand at the soda fountain at Colonial Drug Store on West Franklin. Before King's arrival, the student protest movement had shifted from boycotting to leafleting and was now organizing a sit-in campaign aimed at movie theaters.

What the protesters wanted was a local public accommodations ordinance. The resistance they faced can be read in this conclusion to an editorial in the Chapel Hill Weekly on March 31, 1960:

As unpopular as it might be, a man's prejudice is still a personal matter. If he chooses to indulge himself in it, then he alone must take the responsibility for it. Nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory reason why a community should assume the responsibility for him.

King spoke first in Northside to a crowd of about 400. As Kirk Ross recounted in a retrospective for the Chapel Hill News in 1998, he told the protesters,

"You are demonstrating a magnificent act--a magnificent act of non-cooperation with the forces of evil. You are not seeking to put stores that practice discrimination out of business. You are seeking to put justice in business."

Next, he spoke at Hill Hall on the UNC campus to a mixed audience.

"There must be no violence in the struggle for racial equality," he told the audience. "There is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence--there is only a choice between non-violence and non-existence."

The Rev. J.R. Manley of the First Baptist Church said, "It was like a new creation. He was able to energize people, and after he left it stayed around. It didn't die down for a very long time." Further, he said, "People were angry. There was a whole lot of hate, and I think he helped change that hate, helped to transform those bad energies to focus them into something positive."

Chapel Hill had become one of the focal points for the national civil rights movement. The nation's eyes were on Chapel Hill in those days, but as Joe Straley recalled, "we had to live here once [the national leaders] were gone." It was King's inspiration that sustained the movement locally long after he went on to the next town--and sustains it today.