At Pullen Memorial Baptist Church last night, we learned that Mary D. Williams, the “parent” in the quartet arrested last week for disrupting the Wake County school board meeting, is a gospel singer with a fabulous, booming voice. The crowd, at least 250 strong and racially diverse, just rocked when she led them in singing “Wade in the Water” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? Why Not Every Man!”
“Let’s have some church,” Williams told them. “That’s what you need to get through this.”
We learned that Tim Tyson, the Duke “historian” among the arrested 4, knows the civil rights history of Raleigh and Wake County as well as anyone — so he knows what “forced busing” and “neighborhood schools” are all about. Both terms are right out of the old segregationist playbook from George Wallace days, Tyson said.
We learned that the Rev. Nancy Petty, recently installed as the pastor at Pullen, intends that her church take center stage in this unfolding chapter of civil rights history just as it did in earlier chapters under the leadership of the Rev. W.W. Finlator. Nancy Petty was the white minister among the Raleigh 4. Petty said repeatedly that the time has come for “direct action,” which may mean getting arrested as she did in acts of civil disobedience but also means marching, protests and demonstrations of all kinds. She read Thomas Jefferson’s fiery words from the Declaration of Independence about the purposes of government and the right of the people, when a government “becomes destructive” of human liberties, “to alter or abolish it.”
Above all, we learned that state NAACP President the Rev. William Barber, the Raleigh 4’s black minister, fully intends to put Raleigh into the history books as the Southern capital city where right-wing efforts to re-segregate the public schools a half-century after the Brown ruling were smashed by mass protests. Barber called on the community to rise up and “speak in a massive way” at a protest in Raleigh on July 20, a Tuesday when a regular school board meeting is scheduled.
Barber said the time and place of the protest will be announced shortly. He called on religious leaders, parents, students and the 93 organizations in the HK on J Coalition to join him, and he vowed “to fight in every arena, and give no quarter,” in opposing school resegregation in Wake County and throughout North Carolina.
Barber and Petty said that while they were in the Wake County Jail last week, they began writing a document called “A Letter from the Wake County Jail,” a reference that just about everybody in the church understood: In 1963, after he was arrested in a now-famous protest in Birmingham, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote a famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” explaining the imperatives of civil disobedience in the pursuit of human justice.
The “Letter from the Wake County Jail” will be issued today, Barber said.
Barber said the General Baptist State Convention will join his call for mass action in a statement next week. The Eastern District of North Carolina A.M.E. Churches — 40,000 members strong, according to their spokesman Anthony Davis — has already joined the the call and will be coming to Raleigh July 20 to support the movement, Davis said, adding: “They don’t call us the Freedom Church for nothing.”
Barber, along with Tyson and Petty, spoke powerfully to the theme that the battle over the Wake County schools is not just an episode in local politics but a landmark chapter in the state’s and the nation’s civil rights history. Tyson said that, after the 1954 Brown ruling, “Raleigh never complied once to anything voluntarily” when it came to desegregating the schools. It took the Greensboro sit-ins and a series of NAACP-led protests and lawsuits to force desegregation in the ’70s, two decades later.
Later, Barber went further back in history to the post-Civil War North Carolina Constitution of 1868, which guaranteed every “person” an equal education and rejected language suggesting that some form of racial separation should be justified. “This crowd,” Barber declared, denouncing the new school board majority, “is not just dismissing 56 years of history [since Brown], this crowd is actually messing with 142 years of history right here in North Carolina.”