HILLSBORO, NC ( Associated Press) — Legendary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and three other men were sentenced to work on a chain gang in North Carolina after embarking on a “ride to freedom” challenging Jim Crow laws, His sentence was posthumously vacated on Friday, more than seven decades later.
“We have failed these people,” said Superior Court Judge Alan Baddore, who presided over the special session.
“We failed because of them and we failed to deliver justice in our community,” Baddaur said. “And for that, I apologize. That’s why we’re doing this today to right what’s wrong, public and on record.”
Speaking to about 100 people in the gallery, Baddaur said they had gathered in the same second-story court room in the historic courtyard 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 “ride of liberty” to challenge the laws in defiance of the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court Morgan v. Virginia decision on interstate travel. declares secession unconstitutional. ,
The men boarded buses in Washington, D.C. on the two-week route, which included stops in Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro, North Carolina. As the riders attempted to board the bus at Chapel Hill, several of them were forcefully removed and attacked by a group of angry cab drivers. Four of the so-called Freedom Riders – Andrew Johnson, James Felmet, Bayard Rustin and Igal Rudenko – were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to pass in front of the bus.
After a trial in Orange County, four men were convicted and sentenced to serve in a chain gang. Rustin later published articles about being imprisoned and subjected to hard labor for participating in the first freedom ride, also known as the Journey of Reconciliation.
Renee Price, president of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, told the audience that the special session resulted from research by Baddaur and his staff that was initiated after the previous anniversary of the case.
“We are here 75 years later to address an injustice and from now on to reconciliation and correcting the narrative about that segment of American history,” Price said.
In 1942, five years before the Chapel Hill episode, Rustin was beaten up by police officers in Nashville, Tennessee, and taken to prison after refusing to follow a bus aboard a Louisville, Kentucky, author Raymond Arsenault. Wrote the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” A pioneer of the civil rights movement, Rustin was an advisor to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963.
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Dr. Adrienne Lentz-Smith, 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 that his role in the conflict was ultimately reduced by concerns that his being gay and former members of the Communist Party might harm the movement.
“He was deliberately taken out of the limelight,” Lentz-Smith said. “The things that made him remarkable and admirable to us… made him deeply vulnerable in 2022”, she said.
Rustin’s partner, Walter Nagel, spoke to Zoom Friday and said that Rustin and the three men were “fighting not for their good will, but for the sake of all of us… their faith and their conscience forced them to act.” did.”
Rudenko’s niece Amy Zonariev told the courtroom that her uncle was “the epitome of a moral and righteous citizen, yet he was imprisoned for sitting next to his dear friend, Bayard Rustin.”
Last month, five District Court judges marked the 75th anniversary of the arrests of Rustin and three others in Chapel Hill by reading out 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 acknowledge the responsibility entrusted to us to do our part to eliminate racial disparities in our justice system. “