Orange County

Martin Luther King Jr. and Chapel Hill’s Jim Crow past

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Chapel Hill in 1960.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Chapel Hill in 1960. John Kenyon Chapman Collection

Martin Luther King Jr. walked out the door after his final speech of his trip to town and stood on the building’s front steps. Ahead and a little to his left on the old campus quad, the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam stood taller. It was May of 1960, and King had just given his fourth talk in two days here.

As he emerged from the University of North Carolina’s Hill Hall into that Monday night, he did not seem to notice the bronze soldier on a pedestal. The sun had already set. The Confederate soldier’s back was turned. And anyway, it was the South in 1960.

On that Sunday and Monday, King gave four talks – to the local black community, at University Baptist Church, as a guest speaker in a UNC classroom, and his main speech in Hill Hall that Monday night, May 9.

Hill Hall had been the library before becoming home to the music department. The acoustics of its auditorium most often benefited the strings and horns of students, but on that night King’s vocal cords took advantage, lifting the overflow crowd to their feet for two standing ovations. Folks at home listened attentively over the radio.

Outside of the hall was the original quad of the first public university in America to open its doors. The setting seemed a natural fit for a visit by King. Chapel Hill had long been regarded as perhaps the most progressive dot on the Southern map. That liberal reputation was already entrenched in 1938 when President Franklin Roosevelt spoke in a campus gymnasium, was even stronger when President John Kennedy gave a speech in the football stadium a year after King’s trip, and remains synonymous with Chapel Hill today. Yet on that visit, surely like King’s sojourns in many towns, behind the scenes tension swirled. The full story of King’s trip to Chapel Hill has never been told.

A progressive veneer

King, who was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday, arrived as the local civil rights movement, inspired by the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, was getting underway. Although Chapel Hill and UNC had strongly identified with the Confederacy during and long after the Civil War, a progressive veneer began forming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries even as an antebellum longing lingered. That gloss obscured deep imperfections from those within and without.

There have been many liberal torch bearers at UNC, including the philosopher Horace Williams; sociologists Howard Odum, Guy Johnson and Arthur Raper; the playwright Paul Green; UNC presidents Frank Porter Graham and William C. Friday; and Dean Smith. Although according to John Ehle’s book “The Free Men,” Green had remarked on Chapel Hill’s contradiction, saying, “The university is like a lighthouse which throws a beam out to the far horizons of the South, yet is dark at its own base.”

Ehle, who died last month, was writing about Chapel Hill’s early 1960s civil rights movement, which ultimately failed to convince the town to integrate its businesses. In the Chapel Hill movement’s early months as King came to town in 1960, the largely teenage participants from a segregated high school named for Abraham Lincoln were already finding the trail less illuminated than hoped. King’s first public stop in Chapel Hill was to give a pep talk to those young activists.

The difficulty they found over four years of picketing, marches and sit-ins provide important context to what happened in the shadows of King’s visit. I’ve been researching Chapel Hill’s history with race for a book, and I recently became curious about King’s trip. Little had been written about it, and the occasion was relatively under-documented. There were no speech transcripts. He was not heavily covered by the town newspaper.

Only two little-known photographs from King’s trip existed, buried in the Southern Historical Collection on campus, from his appearance at the African American community center, which is called the Hargraves Community Center today.

As I talked with people and dug through archives and libraries, I eventually connected a previously undiscovered straight line between King’s visit in 1960 and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which was a series of bus rides testing segregated seating that begot the famed 1961 Freedom Rides.

The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation became known as the First Freedom Ride, and there is now a state historical marker in downtown Chapel Hill noting the violence the Freedom Riders encountered at the bus station there while testing a Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated interstate travel.

‘A mill town’

King’s second talk in town took place at University Baptist Church, built in the style of an ancient Greek temple at the main intersection downtown. In 2014, the church dedicated the community room in which King spoke in his honor, and The Daily Tar Heel wrote about the occasion and published another story shortly thereafter. The wood-paneled space in the basement was directly underneath the church’s grand sanctuary with balcony seating.

University Baptist’s current pastor, Mitchell Simpson, told the student newspaper that a judge had helped block King from speaking in the sanctuary. Simpson recently explained to me in an interview that after he became pastor in 1990 some older church members shared with him the story behind King’s speech. Primary among them was Paul Shearin, a former chairman of UNC’s physics department who died in 2000 and had opposed the judge in the church’s split over King. Shearin told Simpson the story so he’d know that the church’s history had some skeletons.

Simpson, a UNC alumnus, believes that the same goes for the town and college. “The uglier truth always was that this community, though it loved to see itself as very different from other Southern towns – Chapel Hill was in but not of the South – but that’s not true,” Simpson recently said in an interview. “This was a mill town. It’s just that the mill produced degrees.” Simpson has preached about the King incident. But the story has largely remained in the bubble of the church.

A student Baptist group had invited King to speak at the church during his trip to town. But the overture rankled manychurch leaders. Not only was King black, but they viewed him as a troublemaker. And his movement was bearing fruit in their own streets, threatening to upend the town’s social order. A deacon and chief opponent to King’s church appearance was an Orange County Recorder’s Court judge named Luther James Phipps, Shearin told Simpson.

Nadene Koon, now 92, was the church secretary in 1960 and confirmed in a recent interview that Phipps was involved in the controversy. She recalled that agitated church leaders wanted to keep King from setting foot in the church. But since the student group held a standing meeting on Sunday evenings there, a compromise was reached: King could speak at the students’ regular gathering in the basement, but not in the sanctuary.

“He just had these very racist views,” Koon said of Phipps. “As did many other people in the South.”

Koon disagreed with Phipps and attended King’s talk, titled “The Church is the Frontier for Racial Justice.” She remembered that one attendee asked King how long it might take for America’s racial problems to be resolved. Koon said, “He gave an answer that seemed like a long time.”

The church’s rift so upset its then-pastor, who’d recently arrived hoping he’d come to a progressive flock, that Simpson said the man broke down in the pulpit while addressing his disappointment. He left the church soon after.

A private prosecutor

Phipps was a prominent man in Chapel Hill, and as it turned out, this was not his first brush with the civil rights movement. Online searches returned references to the 1947 Freedom Ride. Some histories on the subject mentioned a “prosecutor” named “T.J. Phipps” – Judge Phipps’s name was typically recorded as L.J. Phipps – and his virulently racist closing argument in Chapel Hill Recorder’s Court at the 1947 Freedom Riders’ trial for violating segregation law. (Recorder’s courts were low-level courts handling minor offenses.) Four men with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had taken a series of bus rides in Southern states to test Jim Crow seating laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

No record or account existed of L.J. Phipps working as a solicitor, or district attorney. But in the State Archives, the records for Orange County Superior Court, which heard the Freedom Riders’ appeal, verified that L.J. Phipps indeed worked the case, as a private prosecutor. And he did so while an Orange County Recorder’s Court judge. (Recorder’s court judge was a part-time job that allowed for practicing law on the side. The practice of private prosecution became less common throughout the 20th century.)

The original source of the misspelled “T.J. Phipps” in the history bookstraced back to a 1947 magazine article written by James Peck, one of the white Freedom Riders, just after the initial trial in Chapel Hill.Bayard Rustin, a significant movement leader who tutored King on nonviolence and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, was one of the defendants. Peck wrote in The Crisis, the NAACP magazine founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, that Phipps gave a half-hour summation in Chapel Hill court centered on his opinions on race, only once touching on the legalities of the case he was prosecuting. Peck wrote:

[Phipps] opened with: “I have good friends among the ‘nigras’ – that is among the better element.” He went on to state that the Negroes had been brought over from Africa as savages and had been civilized by the whites. Then came the lengthy argument to show that the Negroes really want jimcrow.

At one point he said: “I will now quote from a decision in a case in which a ‘nigra’ raped a white girl,” and then paused conspicuously. The decision had no bearing on the question of segregation in interstate travel.

Historical newspaper accounts revealed that this was not the only case Phipps took on as private prosecution, but it was far from his primary occupation. It seemed to reason that Phipps’s fervor for preserving Jim Crow motivated him to prosecute the Freedom Riders as a private attorney.

Barry Winston, a defense attorney in the area since the 1960s who clerked for Phipps in law school, said he was unaware that Phipps had ever worked as a private prosecutor, but he was not surprised that Phipps had done so against the Freedom Riders. People I spoke with who knew Phipps – and it should be noted they were white – described him as “likable” and “a lovely gentleman,” even if they found his opinions on race objectionable. “He was in every other respect a delightful, generous, lovable man,” said Winston.

After an unsuccesful appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, the Freedom Riders served sentences working on chain gangs. Rustin wrote about the experience, leading to the end of the chain gangs in North Carolina.

‘Pure heart and open mind’

When Phipps died in 1969 as a sitting district court judge after nearly 30 years on various benches, a lengthy front-page obituary in The Chapel Hill Weekly lauded a powerful man integral to the decision-making of just about every organization around. Seemingly half of the town’s adult males were honorary pallbearers.

Chapel Hill Weekly

Phipps had served stints as a state legislator, president of a bank, town attorney for Carrboro and attorney for the local Merchants Association. He was chairman of the county Democratic Party executive committee, state commander of the American Legion, and a decorated leader in multiple historical societies, the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts and area bar associations. He also headed University Baptist’s Board of Deacons and was church moderator.

In a guest editorial, UNC chancellor emeritus Robert B. House, who’d also fought integration in various forms, wrote of Phipps’s “pure heart and open mind” and said he’d “never known a man with higher ideals or with a quieter, steadier loyalty to those ideals.” Only one tribute, by the newspaper’s editor, James Shumaker, mentioned that Phipps was a segregationist (and also a backer of the 1963 Speaker Ban Law), but it largely excused Phipps’s already outdated principles.

Shumaker pointed out that while Phipps was a staunch “law and order” conservative, he’d enthusiastically supported Frank Porter Graham’s campaign for U.S. Senate and the integration of African Americans into the political process. Shumaker also wrote that Phipps “was a man of rock-like principles and he stood as squarely on them as anyone we have ever known.”

County deed books show that Phipps had his fingers in many real estate deals as an attorney and bank representative, further illustrating his influence. A short residential road in Carrboro was named for him as a result of his legal services in developing the neighborhood. By coincidence, Simpson, the current University Baptist pastor, now calls Phipps Street home. “God has a hell of a sense of humor,” Simpson said.

In addition to the controversy at University Baptist Church, during that visit King became the first known black guest of the antebellum-inspired Carolina Inn, according to historian Kenneth Zogry, who wrote a book about the Inn. A dinner was held for King in what used to be known as the Pine Room, a small and wood-paneled dining room, although King did not stay at the Inn nor was any barrier-breaking apparently trumpeted at the time.

Zogry believes King slept at a private home. Black servers and cooks who worked the dinner were still relegated to “colored” dressing rooms and toilets at the Inn, separate from their white co-workers, and the hotel’s brochure featured a drawing of a grinning black bellman until 1972.

Three days before King’s finale on campus, a few students, as a demonstration against racism, replaced the American flag flying in front of the administration building with a homemade one displaying a red swastika. It also depicted a spike-impaled foot, connoting Jesus Christ, stepping on a black baby, with the words “Christians get out!” in German. The idea was to call out Christian and American hypocrisy. During that same era, Ku Klux Klansmen, who typically claimed to uphold Christian ideals, sometimes harassed and rode horses through Chapel Hill’s black neighborhoods.

The day of King’s big speech in Hill Hall, The Chapel Hill Weekly ran a front-page story from his first talk, at the African-American community center. But the headline and story focused on the local protest organizers, who announced they would shift from sit-ins and literature distribution to boycotts. The news coverage gave the impression that this pivot was a relief.

At the community center appearance, standing behind a folding table, a 31-year-old King encouraged those young activists. “You are demonstrating a magnificent act, a magnificent act of non-cooperation with the forces of evil,” King said that Sunday afternoon, according to The Chapel Hill Weekly. “You are not seeking to put stores that practice discrimination out of business. You are seeking to put justice in business. Tell the businessman, ‘You respect our dollars; now respect our persons.’ Continue to struggle until we can really obtain democracy in all its dimensions and everybody in the community will be able to live together as brothers.”

King came to campus Monday, and The Daily Tar Heel printed three front-page stories the following day: on his remarks at University Baptist; his guest-speaker appearance before a pair of Sociology 51 classes; and his big speech, “The Struggle for Racial Justice,” in Hill Hall’s auditorium.

The year before, only 26 African Americans were enrolled at UNC, 0.3 percent of the total student population. (Figures are not available for the 1959-60 academic year.) Even if King’s campus audiences generally supported his message, he felt pressure to reassure. While taking questions from the sociology students, King explained that black men had no desire to marry white women and that African Americans did not possess an innate “tendency toward irresponsibility and immorality,” as one student asserted. In Hill Hall, King continued preaching a nonviolence that extended to a refusal to hate opponents. He emphasized that the battle was a “struggle between justice and injustice, not a struggle between the races.”

After the speech

Oscar Brinson III, a white sophomore, was in the crowd. In 2017, the UNC Office of Communications interviewed him about his experience that night, and I called Brinson for more details.

Brinson’s dorm was just up the quad from Hill Hall, and he’d asked a few friends if they wanted to go see King. But they declined so he went alone. Like several others in attendance, Brinson was so moved he desired to talk with King at the conclusion of the rousing speech. Many people lined up at the front of the auditorium for a word, so Brinson decided to wait outside in front of the building.

Eventually, King exited alone, and Brinson asked if he had a little time to talk. King accepted without hesitation, and the two chatted on the Hill Hall steps. “He was kind, he was gracious, he was soft-spoken,” Brinson recalled. Brinson said King is still the most impressive person he’s met in his 77 years, including President Kennedy. Each time Brinson asked King a question, King thoughtfully paused before answering, even though he’d likely fielded the same queries hundreds of times before. “He was so willing to talk to some little kid,” Brinson said.

After a few minutes, King said he had to go but invited Brinson to walk with him across the old quad to his car. During their stroll, King would stop and stand still on the brick walkway to contemplate his answers. When they reached King’s car in the Morehead Planetarium lot, they lingered more before shaking hands. Brinson thanked him for his time, and King said, “No, thank you for your interest,” and then got in his car and drove away.

As King and Brinson walked through the darkness that night, they passed behind the bronze Silent Sam statue standing tall at the gateway to campus. The Confederate monument has long been controversial, more visibly so in recent years. It was dedicated in 1913 with a speech by Confederate veteran Julian Carr, namesake of Carrboro where Phipps Street is now. L.J. Phipps, as a UNC student, had been a recipient of a fellowship named for Julian Carr.

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

Carr’s 1913 speech and Phipps’s summation in 1947 were mirrors of each other that reflected the ways of a prior century. Carr praised Confederates who strived to maintain white supremacy after the war, and he bragged of horsewhipping a “negro wench” within sight of the new statue. Thereafter, Chapel Hillians celebrated the then-emerging myth of the Lost Cause with annual picnics on the quad. Even in the years after King’s death at least one fraternity posed for a photo at the Confederate statue’s base, dressed in antebellum costumes with their dates.

When King was assassinated in 1968, eight years after his Hill Hall speech, black mourners marched through town burning Confederate flags, easily purchased on Franklin Street, and the Confederate monument was covered in graffiti in protest. Today, when exiting Hill Hall as King did on that night in 1960, the same Confederate monument is in sight, ahead and just to the left. Most days this academic year, demonstrators could also be seen at its base, distributing literature, displaying protest signs, advocating for Silent Sam’s removal. The words King delivered to Chapel Hill’s activist youth in 1960 could still apply.

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Mike Ogle (@mikeogling) is a journalist in Chapel Hill. He is writing a book about a forgotten racial murder at UNC.