By Staff Reports
The Rev. Robert Seymour, a major voice in the community for 70 years and a pivotal figure in the local battle for civil rights, has died at the age of 95. Seymour’s death, after sustaining injuries in a fall, was announced Sunday by Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, where he was the long-time pastor.
“He was a giant in the 1960s civil rights movement by working with UNC coach Dean Smith to integrate restaurants in Chapel Hill and basketball in the South,” remembered Rep. Verla Insko on Twitter. “He will live on as a giant in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s in Chapel Hill and North Carolina,” wrote Orange County Commissioners Chair Penny Rich.
Seymour became the first pastor at Binkley in 1959, when Chapel Hill was still a rigidly segregated community. But the church, under Seymour, had an open membership policy that sought to include not only all races, but all Christians. That earned the church and its pastor reputations in the Southern Baptist Convention for being “uncooperative.”
One of Seymour’s parishioners was UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith. Together, they helped integrate local restaurants and defended black student-athletes against racist fans.
Seymour also founded the Fellowship for School Integration, which prodded the local school board, which had been dragging its feet, to move more quickly on desegregating local schools. In addition, in 1963, he helped organize the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service and served as its first president. He was instrumental, as well, in founding the Chapel Hill Senior Center, which was named after him and his wife Pearl.
Even after he became pastor emeritus, in 1988, he remained, for his entire life, an active progressive, fighting for social justice.