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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Charles M. Jones, November 8, 1976. Interview B-0041. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Youthful and black protests tested the limits of old-style Chapel Hill liberalism

Jones paints a picture of an activist student body in civil rights matters. He argues that college students' and blacks' direct action activism rejected Howard Odum's older, more cerebral brand of liberalism. Nevertheless, this older model of liberalism prevented the rise of racist demagogues in Chapel Hill, which plagued other southern cities.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Charles M. Jones, November 8, 1976. Interview B-0041. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
Another question is that at least as far back as the thirties, and certainly continuing into the early fifties, there was a very strong notion throughout the region that Chapel Hill is this liberal island.
CHARLES M. JONES:
Yes.
JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
And that may be something that you would care to argue against; I don't know. But from my point of view, if that were so, it's difficult to understand how there was such a violent reaction to the Freedom Riders in 1947. That incident in Chapel Hill was the most violent incident of their journey, was it not?
CHARLES M. JONES:
The only violent one, yes.
JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
And then the nature of the resistance to integration in Chapel Hill took some rather violent forms.
CHARLES M. JONES:
Dr. Frank, we talked about that once, but we weren't talking about Chapel Hill; we were talking about North Carolina.
JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
Well, that, too.
CHARLES M. JONES:
He said to me, "The reason North Carolina has not gone the way politically with demagogues, like South Carolina has in extreme reaction is because we have not had any political demagogues. Look back; we really haven't had any real effective political demagogues. We've had conservative fellows, but not demagogues.
JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
Who were rather bland.
CHARLES M. JONES:
Bland, and did their fighting behind the curtain at you, you see. Well, I don't think that holds for the Chapel Hill bus test because, after all, these fellows coming through here weren't demagogues. They were peaceful and they were very quiet. And we (Dr. Frank and I) never talked about this; I wished I had, now that you ask the question, but it's interesting. But we didn't, I guess because I think I have the answer. At that particular time of violence in 1947, the blacks in Chapel Hill, due to Dr. Frank's notion of education, were beginning to open a taxi business, and they did open a taxi business. And this upset the white taxi men, because it put them on an equal with blacks, obviously. And the beginning of the troublemaking in this instance, in fact all of this violence, centered around taxicabs. And the three cars that came to my house were taxicabs, mainly taxicab drivers in them. And at one time when the students called that big mass meeting about it, I went to the mass meeting and I saw a taxicab driver going with his cap on. So I said, "I hope you're going to say what you have to say today." He said, "Hell, I can't say nothing. I ain't had no education." I says, "Well, it don't take an education." I said, "I didn't graduate from college, either. I dropped out. It don't take an education to say what you feel; you say it." And he says, "No, I can't do nothing like that." And he said to me, "I wasn't in that bunch." He said, "I wouldn't do nothing like that." But he says, "I've been driving up and down these streets, and students have been cuttin in on me and calling me a son-of-a-bitch." And he said, "People have been refusing to ride with me." And he said, "I didn't have nothing to do with it." He said, "It's just them other fellows." [Laughter] So I spoke for him at the meeting, when he didn't speak, and I spoke for him against the proposed boycott of the taxicab drivers. But the taxi drivers were immediate cause of that violence. But it was ready to happen, because from the forties on we had progressively, either by permission or by government order, had Negroes raised higher and higher in status. Nowhere else in the state did they have students being trained in another school. They had a black band that moved with great [Laughter] pomp and ceremony. So I think things went a bit too fast for some people and that was the the substitute for the demagogue, as far as I can see. Because I'd go downtown, and, God, I lost friends right and left for a while. And the big thing was "You're going too fast." And they saw we were a threat there. [Laughter] Of course it was a real threat, and I can see that. But I think that was more the reason in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill's liberalism, more or less, has been bookish, anyway, up until in the forties. [Howard] Odum, I think, probably started it, and I had an interesting experience with Odum when I first came here. He was one of the liberals and a very good one. But a fellow came to my office and wanted to—in fact, he had one leg; he was black, and this was in the fifties—and he'd been down to register, and they wouldn't register him. And he wanted to know what to do about it. So I said, "Well, we'll call up and see." And I called up Howard Odum's office, and Lee Brooks was also there, a friend of mine. I said, "This fellow is over here, and he wants to register and they say they won't do it. What do we do?" Well, Odum says, "You go down there with him [Laughter] , and if you have any trouble, why, let me know." Well, Dr. Brooks heard about it, and he came across to go with me. And I took a copy of the U.S. Constitution with me. And the woman registrar said, "Well, he can't read the Constitution," and I says, "How do you know?" She says, "Well, he's just been to the seventh grade." And I says, "Well, there's a lot of white people been to the seventh grade and evidently can read the Constitution." She says, "Well, I won't pass him." And I says, "Well, have you given him the test?" She says, "No." I said, "Would you give him a test?" She says, "Well, I don't have the Constitution." So I pulled my copy out of my pocket. I said, "Well, I have one here, but you're in a sense trapped." And I said, "We'll leave and come back in half an hour, and if you want to give the test, we're going to have witnesses. And if you want to have some for your side, you can do it and we're going to take it to court." We came back in half an hour, and she registered him. But, you see, Odum, he'd write these things, and he inscribed a book for me—and he'd given it to me—"To Charles Jones, in the long and gradual fight for equality." So there again you had that age in which he was born. Rupert Vance was that way until he changed during the '50s and '60s.
JOSEPH HERZENBERG:
But he had some kind of change?
CHARLES M. JONES:
Yes, he changed later on, toward the last. Rupert was a more open man than than Howard. And yet I don't want to run Howard Odum down. When Henry Wallace wanted to come here—he did come here for a student Progressive Party convention—and the University had agreed to the student convention. They hadn't looked at it closely enough, or the students didn't tell them that much. But when they discovered it was Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, it turns out that the building that the students were supposed to use was being painted. So the students came to me and put the problem, and I said, "Well, it's on Saturday and Sunday. I can give you my buildings on Saturday; I've got to have them Sunday." I said, "Go and see Dr. Odum." Odum said, "You can have mine Saturday afternoon." He said, "The University doesn't control my buildings." And there was the liberal in him, see. So between us we got the conference held. They put a sign on the front of the Presbyterian Church "Progressive Party Meet Here," and they registered in the morning there and then moved over. I guess I caught more hell about that than almost anything else, which was strange, but I sure did. But that was your Chapel Hill liberalism, you see. It was insight but little action.