Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Upcoming exhibit on student protest in Chapel Hill

UNC's Southern Historical Collection and University Archives are sponsoring an upcoming exhibit called "I Raised My Hand to Volunteer: Student Protests in 1960s Chapel Hill." The exhibit, which will be in the Manuscripts Department of Wilson Library, opens Tuesday, January 23, with a talk by history professor Peter Filene. On three subsequent Tuesday evenings, panel discussions are planned: on the desegregation sit-ins of 1963-64, the speaker ban controversy, and the foodworkers' strike of 1969.

When Tim West asked me to moderate the first of these panels, the one on the sit-ins, it was very clear to me why he should think of a Town Council member. In the tumultuous period before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, the demonstrators had the audacity to ask the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen to pass a local public accommodations ordinance. At a crucial public meeting that followed much back-and-forth among members of the Board, alderman Adelaide Walters gave a passionate explanation of her intention to vote in favor of the ordinance:

The underlying idea of a Public Accommodations Law is so simple that it was expressed in one sentence by the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union message on January 9 [1964]: "all members of the public should be given equal access to facilities open to the public." This statement seems reasonable to most people in Chapel Hill, since this is a university town where freedom flavors the spirit of a great university.

It is likewise not surprising that Chapel Hillians are concerned that our Negro citizens often suffer personal embarrassment and shame from treatment in some public places here.

We are aware that some 90 percent of our merchants subscribe to the principle of public accommodation. Indeed, the Merchants Association itself has gone on record in favor of open business for all citizens.

Why, then, is a Public Accommodations Law necessary? Why was the commandment "Thou shall not kill" ever put into law? It seems regrettable that we need legislation to enforce a plain truth. But because the bigotry of a few is poisoning the peace and harmony of community relationships, we are impelled to take action.

The Human Relations Committee set up by the Board of Aldermen and appointed by the Mayor, the Ministerial Association, as well as many individuals, have urged us to pass a Public Accommodations ordinance.

Some say that such an ordinance is an invasion of private property rights. Others point out that such rights have always been subject to the laws of the land--laws of ownership, sale, inheritance, zoning, sanitation, eminent domain.

For these reasons and many more, it is my hope that the Board of Aldermen will pass a Public Accommodations ordinance and thus in part restore the damaged public image of what I believe is an enlightened community.

The ordinance was not even voted upon. Rather, alderman Roland Giduz made a substitute motion to set up a group of community leaders "to serve as a mediation committee to resolve racial differences that currently beset this town and to which complaints of racial discrimination could be brought." That motion carried 6-2, with Hubert Robinson (Chapel Hill's first black alderman) joining Walters in opposing it. Mayor Sandy McClamroch, who had no vote under the system in place (except as a tie-breaker), went out of his way to express his opposition to the passing of an ordinance.*

The town's leaders, in other words, did not lead.

This exhibit will provide a welcome opportunity to revisit that period. It'll be my honor to moderate a panel that includes three people who were among the student activists--Quinton Baker, Karen Parker, Braxton Foushee--and a current UNC student political leader, Erika Stallings.

*All of this information comes from John Ehle's invaluable 1965 book The Free Men, a book that ought to be required reading in Chapel Hill public schools. It is out of print.

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