75 years after sentencing Freedom Riders to the chain gang, N.C. tosses out their convictions

Last month, five District Court judges marked the 75th anniversary of the arrests of Rustin and the three other men in Chapel Hill by reading a statement of apology.

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Legendary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and three other men who were sentenced to work on a chain gang in North Carolina after they launched the first of the “freedom rides” to challenge Jim Crow laws will have their sentences posthumously vacated Friday, more than seven decades later.

“While this judicial action is taking place 75 years after the injustice occurred, never should we falter in examining past wrongs, seeking reparation, and lifting those heavy burdens from our hearts and minds so that future generations may know justice,” Renée Price, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement.

On April 9, 1947, a group of eight white men and eight Black men began the first “freedom ride” to challenge laws that mandated segregation on buses in defiance of the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court Morgan v. Virginia ruling declaring segregation on interstate travel unconstitutional.

Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the planned march on Washington program, points to a map showing the line of march for the demonstration for civil rights during a news conference in New York on Aug. 24, 1963. (AP Photo, File)

The men boarded buses in Washington, D.C., setting out on a two-week route that included stops in Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro, North Carolina. As the riders attempted to board the bus in Chapel Hill, several of them were removed by force and attacked by a group of angry cab 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 about being imprisoned and subjected to hard labor for taking part in the first freedom ride, which was also known as the Journey of Reconciliation.

In 1942, five years before the Chapel Hill episode, Rustin was beaten by police officers in Nashville, Tennessee, and taken to jail after refusing to move to the back of a bus he had ridden from Louisville, Kentucky, author Raymond Arsenault wrote in the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” A pioneer of the civil rights movement, Rustin was an adviser to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963.

Dr. Adriane Lentz-Smith, an associate professor and associate chair in the department of history at Duke University, described Rustin as “a shepherd and a shaper of the 1960s movement.” But Lentz-Smith said his role in the struggle eventually diminished over concerns that his being gay and a former member of the Communist party could hurt the movement.

“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 profoundly vulnerable” then, she said.

Last month, five District Court judges marked 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 Orange and Chatham Counties and accept the responsibility entrusted to us to do our part to eliminate racial disparities in our justice system.”

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