Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A local apology

With the recent republication of John Ehle's 1965 book The Free Men, a moving chronicle of the civil rights protests that stood "liberal" Chapel Hill on its end in 1963-64, an important, yet little known, chapter in Chapel Hill's history has come to light again. This time last year, UNC's Wilson Library manuscripts division did its own part to acknowledge these events by mounting a fine documentary exhibit and hosting a series of panel discussions. I had the privilege of introducing and moderating a discussion that included Quinton Baker, Karen Parker, and Braxton Foushee, all of whom were students who participated in the demonstrations.


It was very clear to me why Tim West, who heads the manuscripts division, asked me to moderate this session. At the heart of the protest was the refusal of my predecessors on the Chapel Hill Town Council to pass a local public accommodations ordinance. Here's some of what I said at that panel back in January 2007:

I’ve been here almost 20 years. Yet it wasn’t until the NAACP presented us with a request to rename Airport Road for Martin Luther King Jr., three years ago, that I began to get any sense of what had happened here in the early 1960s. We had to learn all over again, from folks like Dan Pollitt who is here, and Joe Straley who is no longer here, that King spoke here in 1960, in the wake of the Greensboro sit-ins. In the end, we celebrated the name change on May 8, 2005, the 45th anniversary of King’s visit. But getting to that point was not an easy road.When it was the will of the Council in 2004, after three public hearings on the topic, not to vote to change the name of the road but instead to set up a citizen committee to talk about it, that’s when I learned that for some with better memories, it was déjà vu all over again. This is precisely what the Board of Aldermen (as they were then called) did in January 1964, rather than pass a local public accommodations ordinance. That was the second time they had said no to the ordinance, while Franklin Street roiled with demonstrations. Elected leaders did not lead.

The successes of the 1960-61 protests by Lincoln High students and graduates, including Braxton, at Colonial Drug and other places including the bus station and the two segregated movie houses set the stage for the demonstrations of 1963 and 1964. In this period, according to Dan Pollitt, who as a law professor was very much involved, Chapel Hill “joined the ever-increasing number of southern communities to experience an effort at racial integration by tactics variously called ‘creative disorder,’ ‘scofflaw Christianity,’ and ‘insurrection and rebellion.'”

Particularly over the long months of December 1963, January, February, March, and April 1964, university administrators “shut their eyes to the problem with a position of neutrality,” and the board of aldermen, as I’ve mentioned, ducked responsibility, while the demonstrators kept the pressure up. With the exception of the Daily Tar Heel, the local press tried its best to ignore what was right in front of them, except when they condemned it, which they did in their editorials often and with great stridency. The Chapel Hill Weekly, under Orville Campbell’s leadership, started out with some sympathy to the demonstrators but quickly joined forces with the opposing business interest. So did The News of Orange County, edited by Roland Giduz, who was also on the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen; and so did the radio station, owned by the mayor, Sandy McClamroch. Then as now, people wondered how an episode like this could have happened in the “southern part of Heaven.”

Roland Giduz, to his immense credit, has apologized. "We should have led the way," wrote the Old Codger Blogger last month.

Today, the official Martin Luther King Jr. Day, set me to thinking again about the purpose of this observance. It seems to me that it is to further the elimination of racial discrimination and bring about natural racial integration.

I harken back to the 1960s in Chapel Hill when the local Board of Aldermen debated enactment of a public accommodations ordinance. That local law would have prohibited racial discrimination in local business service. After many months of deliberation the ordinance failed. The proposal brought on a lengthy trial of conscience throughout the community. As a member of the Town Board I sided with the majority that did not support this ordinance on legal grounds.

Those legal grounds were the fact that municipal governments had no authority to pass laws except those specifically authorized for them. It all became a moot question on July 4, 1964 when the national civil rights law took effect.

Although I believe such authority might yet be illegal, I would support enactment of this local law as I look back on it today. I’d do so on practical grounds, as much as for the fact that I heartily supported then and now the elimination of racial discrimination.The population of Chapel Hill back then would have generally accepted that first public accommodations law to be enacted by a town.

I believe we (the Town Board) erred in not passing that ordinance despite its questionable legality. We (the Board majority) didn’t see the forest for the trees. That is to say, we focused on trying to persuade individual businesses to drop their racial barriers, when the bigger picture was to eliminate all discrimination.

Forty-five years later, does a change of heart matter? I think it does. The very fact of a public apology for an institutional wrong shows that the terms of the debate have shifted. In a new book on the subject, The Politics of Official Apologies, Melissa Nobles argues that, at the highest levels, apologies "help change the terms and meanings of national membership." (Thanks to Al Brophy at Legal History Blog for the tip.)

Thank you, Roland.

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