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

[I read this entry by Chapel Hill Town Council Member Sally Greene on her blog and asked for permissionto cross-post it here. She graciously agreed. Tomorrow the Town will unveil the stone marker at Peace and Justice Plaza. =Ruby]

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."




Congratulations and thanks to everyone who worked up front and behind the scenes for years to make this marker and event a reality. It was a great event. Score one for Chapel Hill setting an example again.There were maybe 125 people there, which was nice. Then I drove through Carrboro and saw thousands out for the Carrboro Music Festival.The festival is really great. These are apples and oranges maybe. But I felt a little sad and disappointed at the juxtaposition of the two crowds.A lot of what makes Chapel Hill and Carrboro cool is the work and legacy left by the people honored at Peace & Justice Plaza today.I am concerned that my friend Steve of the Silk Hope Catholic Worker is right when he pointed out that he and I, in our 40s, were some of the youngest people at the commemoration today. It is usually is like that at similar events and protests at the Plaza and around town.We have our work cut out for us to continue to do the things that matter and to educate and engage our community that if we really want justice and peace we have to take risks and inconvenience ourselves. We have to wake up.I had the honor to work under the same roof every workday for five years with James Brittain and Gloria Williams, and like many others also to count Joe Herzenberg and Joe Straley as mentors. They and all the nine honorees would be most honored if more people in our community got involved like they did. 

I just had a chance to read my son's 8th grade North Carolina History book. It probably does a better job than the history books I read in school but of course it is very light on everything. Wilson Library at UNC had a very good exhibit and lecture series on Chapel Hill history of the 60s.Did any one else see it? I wish we could do a better job of teaching our local history. I teach high school science but also encourage students to attend or learn about these local events. How well attended was Sunday's event?


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