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Jan 26, 2005 6:27 pm

On the Fear of Suits ...

On the wall, next to my desk, hangs a picture of me from Durham, North Carolina's Morning Herald. It's dated Friday, 16 March, 1962. The young fellow in that newspaper clipping is holding open the Exit Door to Durham's Carolina Theater and a group of African American students are shown rushing through that door. Subsequently, about thirty of us were sued by the Carolina Theater's management. $30,000 was the demand, as I recall. More money in those days than it is now. And I had nothing but a B. A. from Duke to pay for it.

We'd been picketing the Carolina and Center theaters in downtown Durham for a year before that picture appeared in the newspaper. We succeeded in closing down the Jim Crow entrance to the segregated balconies to the theaters, but Durham's white residents and, even, some of my fellow Duke students crossed our picket lines to pay for access to the main auditorium. Even some Duke students from the North – even those who scorned Durham as"the armpit of the universe" – even one who later became a Democrat Lieutenant Governor of New York state – even he crossed our picket lines. Finally, we decided to bring our challenge to the segregation in Durham's theaters to a crisis. The Carolina Theater was the more vulnerable of the two theaters because it was housed in a city-owned building. As I recall, it occupied the rear of Durham's city hall.

Student leaders at Durham's North Carolina College organized a mass meeting of their fellow students and, together, we marched from NCC into downtown Durham. Hundreds of them lined up at the white box office to ask for tickets. When each of them was refused, they had a series of questions to ask the ticket agent. The line of African American students waiting to buy tickets and ask questions ran around the entire block on which the Carolina Theater stood – in the process, circling city hall, as well. The Carolina Theater's management moved the sale of tickets into the theater lobby and admitted only white patrons into the lobby.

The movement in Durham had a number of white supporters, like me. So, some of them went into the lobby and purchased tickets. Instead of using the tickets, they left the theater and gave the tickets to about a dozen of the African American students. My appointed task was to stand at the exit door and, when the first of those students in line around the theater, to hold it open for them. When I did, they scattered into the theater and dispersed through the audience. The theater management then had to decide whether to interrupt the movie and close down for the night or let it run, despite the desegregation. They let it run.

It was unusually cool for a March night in Durham and the newspaper picture shows me wearing a jacket and gloves. Kidding me, my friends said that I had the gloves on so that my fingerprints could not be taken from the theater's door. Later, on a related matter, I would be finger-printed by the police in Durham, but the newspaper photograph was probably good enough evidence that I was the one who held the door open for African American students to rush into the Carolina's auditorium. And I was named in the Carolina Theater management's civil suit for $30,000 in damages.

The civil suit was later quashed. The police charges against me that led to my finger printing were for driving an automobile registered in Kentucky with a Kentucky driver's license while living in North Carolina. While I was being finger printed, the officer who was taking my prints asked me why I had gotten involved in the demonstrations at the Carolina Theater. Eventually, on appeal, those charges would be nol prosed. But they were not finally dropped until I had been repeatedly arrested on them and done two short tours of duty in Durham's city jail. I sat up most of one of those nights with a man charged with breaking and entering. He wanted to talk about John Paul Sartre. I didn't much care to go to sleep. Another of my jail mates was charged with repeatedly molesting his daughter.

I've thought about those experiences many times in recent years. I've thought about my vow to go back to jails and help teach their inmates to read. When I was denied tenure at Antioch, I called the federal pen here in Atlanta to volunteer to teach classes of inmates. The telephone tree was so impossible to get through that I finally gave up trying. But, more than that, I've thought about what the fear of suits does to us. I've thought about what it has done to the AHA. It no longer inquires into accusations of violations of professional ethics and the major reason that is usually given is the fear of suits. For a couple of bucks a year on our membership dues, the AHA could insure itself against such suits, but it hasn't done so. A number of us here at HNN have sat in righteous judgment of the AHA for its craven abandon of adjudicating professional behavior. But, when the chips are down, the fear of suits makes cravens of us all. Just be sure you've got your gloves on when the news photographer takes your picture.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 1/27/2005

The criminal charges against me were nol prossed on appeal (albeit appeal after they'd already been nol prossed once; and I was re-arrested a week later on the same charge). It was obvious, from the re-arrests and what the policeman said while I was being finger printed, that I was being harrassed by the local police who wanted to run me out of town because of my work in the movement. The only reason I can think of for their doing it was that they thought if they could run off the white participants in the movement that it would collapse for lack of organizing skills. If that was their reasoning, boy were they mistaken!
The civil case was eventually dropped, I'm sure, tho I don't recall that I was never officially notified of that.

Van L. Hayhow - 1/27/2005

Prof. Luker:
Did you finish the story? What happened to the lawsuit?
Van L. Hayhow

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