Correcting the Past


By Keith T. Barber


The Local Reporter

History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. — Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Renée Price believes it’s never too late to get something right.

On May 4, 2021, as the nation celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders — the 13 Americans who set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, D.C., in 1961 to peacefully protest segregated bus terminals — Price, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, was drafting a proclamation to honor the sacrifice and courage of those brave Americans.

While doing so, she learned of a story with much greater personal resonance.

In 1947, a group of civil rights activists, including Bayard Rustin — the man credited with organizing the legendary 1963 March on Washington — embarked on the Journey of Reconciliation. Sixteen civil rights activists set out to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1946 ruling that racial segregation on commercial interstate buses was unconstitutional. Four of those brave Americans — Rustin, Igal Roodenko, Andrew Johnson, and Joseph Felmet — traveled on buses to several cities in North Carolina and were arrested in Chapel Hill.

Charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move to the back of the bus, Rustin, Roodenko, Johnson and Felmet were convicted inside the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough in 1947. After an unsuccessful appeal, three of the four men, including Rustin, were sentenced to hard labor on segregated chain gangs. And 75 years later in that very same Hillsborough courtroom, the convictions of Rustin, Roodenko, Johnson and Felmet were vacated by Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour.

Price reached out to Judge Baddour when she first learned of the fate of the four Freedom Riders. Price said Judge Baddour confirmed that in the eyes of the law, Rustin, Roodenko, Johnson and Felmet were still considered guilty of a crime. The charges had never been dropped. Price said that’s when she felt compelled to take action.

“I think it’s important that we correct the narrative so we can say they were charged, but they were not criminals,” Price said. “This needs to be understood.”

Baddour advised Price the best way to address the injustice would be for him to grant a motion for appropriate relief on behalf of Rustin, Roodenko, Johnson and Felmet.

“It just bothered me that this is what is hanging around their necks — a conviction that was unjustified — for standing up for their rights,” Price said. “You’re being told that you’re guilty. For the past 75 years, we were taught that these four men were guilty of committing an offense. That’s what we tell ourselves. That’s what we tell our children.”

Price said the power of history is rooted in the stories we tell one another, so understanding what really happened in our collective past is the only way we can make sense of the present moment.

“If you don’t know your history, you’re bound to repeat it, but if you can learn from history, you can go forward,” Price said. “If the story of history that we are hearing is wrong, how do we move forward?”

James E. Coleman, Jr., director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law, has helped craft legal appeals that have led to 10 exonerations over the past 14 years. Coleman said history is written by the victors, so an exoneration of an innocent person represents the first step in correcting a false narrative about our past.

“It is critically important that our understanding of history be as accurate as possible,” Coleman said. “In some cases, that means that versions we once accepted as gospel must be changed in light of new insight, new facts, or simply because those who controlled the narrative in the past admit it was untrue.”

“As we correct the past, we make way for the truth to be acknowledged in the present and future,” Coleman added.

During her remarks before the roughly 100 people in attendance at the special session at the Orange County Courthouse on June 17, Price returned to the theme of history time and time again.

“Selecting June 17th as the date for this court session was intentional, noting that it is the eve of a weekend of celebration for Juneteenth, Freedom Day,” she said. “The court action this afternoon will remove another shackle of bondage from our minds, so that we may rejoice more fully in our freedom.”

“The events of 1947 happened for a reason,” Price continued. “We therefore must remember, embrace and sustain the legacy of these civil rights activists and social justice advocates by our own actions.”

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