The Lightner Funeral Home stands like a watchtower astride the spot in downtown Raleigh where Western Boulevard becomes Martin Luther King Boulevard. It symbolizes the place of Clarence Lightner in the city’s history: He was its only black mayor, serving just one two-year term in 1973-75, but he was at the center of Raleigh’s largely peaceful desegregation over a period of decades. “Baby” Lightner was soft-spoken and forceful, both as a civil rights leader and a political negotiator who believed in progress through compromise. “No matter what goals we set,” his family remembers him as saying, “what is essential is not the things we do separately, but what we hold in common and what we get done together.” Lightner died on July 7 at 80. A public appreciation of his life will be held July 11 at 7 p.m. in Fletcher Theater, part of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts at the foot of Fayetteville Mall. The funeral, open to the public, will be July 12 at noon at Davie Street Presbyterian Church.
Lightner’s death follows by a few weeks the passing of the Rev. Arthur Calloway, a former city councilor and another of Raleigh’s civil rights era leaders. The new Raleigh City Museum is trying to collect oral histories from that generation’s leaders, and from rank-and-file folk in the movement, before it’s too late. Unfortunately, Lightner’s failing health caused several scheduled interviews to be postponed, so his will not be among them. But a number already are, and they’re part of the museum’s current exhibit, Let Us March On: Raleigh’s Journey Toward Civil Rights.
The museum needs volunteers to help identify interview subjects and to conduct the interviews themselves. Each interview takes about 50 hours, according to Ken Peters, the museum’s education coordinator. Much of it is preparation time. If you know someone with a story to tell about Raleigh and civil rights days, or you want to help with the interviews, Peters asks you to call him at (919) 832-3775.