HILLSBOROUGH, NC ( Associated Press) – Legendary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and three other men sentenced to work on a North Carolina chain gang after launching the first of the “freedom rides” to challenge Jim Crow laws convictions were evacuated posthumously Friday, more than seven decades later.
“We let these men down,” said Judge Allen Baddour of the Supreme Court, who presided over the special hearing and at one point stopped to gather himself after he became emotional.
“We have failed their case and we have not succeeded in delivering justice in our community,” Baddour said. “And for that I apologize. So we do it today to correct a mistake, in public and on record. ”
Baddour spoke to about 100 people in the gallery and noted that they were in the same second floor courtroom in the historic courthouse where the men were initially sentenced.
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On April 9, 1947, a group of eight white men and eight black men embarked on the first “freedom ride” to challenge laws that forced segregation on buses in defiance of the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court Morgan v. Virginia ruling declaring segregation on interstate travel unconstitutional.
The men boarded buses in Washington, DC and departed on a two-week route that included stops in Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro, North Carolina. While the riders were trying to get on the bus in Chapel Hill, several of them were forcibly removed and attacked by a group of angry taxi drivers. Four of the so-called Freedom Riders – Andrew Johnson, James Felmet, Bayard Rustin and Igal Roodenko – were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move from the front of the bus.
After a trial in Orange County, the four men were convicted and sentenced to serve on a chain gang. Rustin later published writings on the fact that he was subjected to imprisonment and hard labor for participating in the First Freedom Ride, also known as the Journey of Reconciliation.
Renee Price, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, told the audience that the special session was the result of research by Baddour and his staff that was launched after a previous anniversary of the case.
“We are here, 75 years later, to address an injustice and to henceforth correct the narrative about the Journey of Reconciliation and that segment of American history,” Price said.
In 1942, five years before the Chapel Hill episode, Rustin was beaten by police officers in Nashville, Tennessee and jailed after refusing to move to the back of a bus he was driving from Louisville, Kentucky. author Raymond Arsenault wrote in the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” Rustin, a pioneer of the civil rights movement, was an adviser to the late Rev. Martin Luther King jr. and was instrumental in organizing the march to Washington in 1963.
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Dr. Adriane Lentz-Smith, an associate professor and co-chair of the Department of History at Duke University, described Rustin as “a shepherd and a designer of the 1960s movement.” But Lentz-Smith said his role in the fight had finally diminished due to concerns that he might hurt the movement’s gay and a former member of the Communist Party.
“He was deliberately moved out of the spotlight,” Lentz-Smith said. “The very things that make him remarkable and admirable to us… in 2022 made him extremely vulnerable,” she said.
Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, spoke through Zoom Friday, saying Rustin and the three men “are not fighting for their own good will, but for all of us … Their faith and their conscience have forced them to act.”
Amy Zowniriw, Roodenko’s cousin, told the courtroom that her uncle was “the epitome of a moral and just citizen, but he was jailed for sitting next to his dear friend Bayard Rustin.”
Last month, five district court judges celebrated the 75th anniversary of the arrests of Rustin and the three other men in Chapel Hill by reading a statement of apology.
“The Orange County Court was on the wrong side of the law in May 1947, and it was on the wrong side of history,” the statement read. “Today, we stand before our community on behalf of all five district court judges for the Orange and Chatham provinces and accept the responsibility entrusted to us to do our part to eliminate racial inequalities in our legal system.”