MLK in Jim Crow Chapel Hill
A holiday for reflection and determination
THREE YEARS AGO on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought it’d be a good day to read a little about the man’s trip to Chapel Hill. In my research, I’d once come across two obscure photos of his 1960 visit, but all I knew was that he’d once been here.
I’d seen the photos of Dr. King speaking at the Negro Community Center (now Hargraves) while browsing the John Kenyon Chapman Papers (known as Yonni Chapman) in the Southern Historical Collection. So on that MLK Day in 2018, I looked for more information to satisfy my curiosity.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior having been to town struck me as a George Washington Slept Here kind of historical event. Dr. King is one of the most consequential figures in United States history, perhaps the most consequential American of the 20th century.
But as has become a familiar result for local Black history topics, little information was readily available. So I ended up spending a couple of months digging into Dr. King’s visit in May of 1960, shortly after the local sit-in movement had been launched by a group of teenagers now memorialized as the Chapel Hill Nine. There turned out to be a lot more to the story than I’d bargained for.
The result of the investigation was pinning a prominent local judge not only for blocking Dr. King from speaking in the sanctuary of a church (as the Daily Tar Heel had mentioned in a 2014 article), but also for giving a virulently racist speech in Chapel Hill court against the 1947 Freedom Riders, including Bayard Rustin, as a private prosecutor. He was a sitting Orange County judge at the time. I finally nailed him at the State Archives in Raleigh in old court docket and minutes books. It felt like nerdy Indiana Jones.
My resulting story ran on the front pages of the News & Observer and Herald-Sun that April on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder. It’s about King’s experience and speeches here, as well as the judge. But more generally it’s about the myth of Chapel Hill. Today is a good day to read about what Dr. King faced when he was here. Especially as the nation confronts dangers Chapel Hill knows well.
Dr. King’s assassination at 39 years old in 1968 was the first known occasion of Silent Sam being defaced in protest. His murder was also a moment met with cheers in UNC dorms.
It took another 50 years for the Confederate monument to come down, and required the will of the people to do what leaders would not. And since my 2018 article was published, there’s a push from people who live on the street in Carrboro named for the racist judge to change its name.
On this holiday, I leave you with two quotations from Dr. King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here, published in 1967.
“To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of a very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically unsound, morally repugnant and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease. A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgment of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.”
“The great majority of Americans … are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”
ONE GOOD THING:
Looking for an online MLK event to attend today? Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II will be the keynote speaker for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Virtual Celebration at 11 a.m. Register at the link.
SOURCES & CREDITS:
“University Baptist Church honors Martin Luther King Jr. with dedication for 1960 speech”: Daily Tar Heel
“University Baptist Church recalls visit from Martin Luther King Jr”: Daily Tar Heel
“Martin Luther King Jr. and Chapel Hill’s Jim Crow past” by Mike Ogle: News & Observer
“April 1968: Carolina Reacts to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”: University Archives blog
“Erase history or redefine it? N.C. communities want to rename streets, neighborhoods.”: News & Record
“‘That’s not where we want to go.’ Carrboro drops neighborhood’s Plantation Acres name”: News & Observer
Dr. King at Hargraves photos: John Kenyon Chapman Papers, Southern Historical Collection
L.J. Phipps signature photo: Mike Ogle
Newspaper photos: Mike Ogle (News & Observer and Herald-Sun of April 4, 2018; 1960 Chapel Hill Weekly). 1960 Daily Tar Heel via Newspapers.com.