Today (June 17), civil rights leader Bayard Rustin along with Andrew Johnson, James Felmet and Igal Roodenko will posthumously have their sentences in North Carolina vacated after challenging Jim Crow laws in the 1940s and organizing freedom rides. The decision comes over seven decades after the rides began.
Chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners Renée Price released a statement saying, “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.”
The first freedom ride started on April 9, 1947, when eight Black men and eight white men came together to protest mandated segregation laws. This came after the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court Morgan v. Virginia ruling announcing segregation on interstate travel unconstitutional.
The 16-member group embarked on a two-week bus ride with stops in Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro, North Carolina. According to the Associated Press, they were attacked during one of their stops. Police were called to the scene and Johnson, Felmet, Rustin and Roodenko were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. They were convicted and sentenced to work on a chain gang following a trial.
Rustin later served as an adviser to the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and played an important role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. Adriane Lentz-Smith, a history professor at Duke University, spoke highly of Rustin, calling him “a shepherd and a shaper of the 1960s movement.”
“He was deliberately moved out of the spotlight,” Lentz-Smith said of Rustin, who was arrested several times while protesting for civil rights. “The very things that make him remarkable and admirable to us … in 2022 made him profoundly vulnerable.”
Last month, five District Court judges released a statement for the 75th anniversary of the arrests.“The Orange County Court was on the wrong side of the law in May 1947, and it was on the wrong side of history,” they said. “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.”