A Greensboro civil rights veteran displays feisty take on notable anniversary

by Jordan Green

Hal Sieber was a civil libertarian during the red scare years of the 1950s when Joseph McCarthy strode the halls of the Senate. He was a chamber-of-commerce liberal during the late-1960s high tide of black power. He was the white editor of the Carolina Peacemaker, Greensboro’s black newspaper, at a time when he sensed a strong contingent of its readership was interested in resegregating.

That is to say that Hal Sieber is a man who has always been a little out of step with his times.

On Aug. 28, Sieber was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on the topic, “From the 1963 March on Washington to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” It was the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. It was inevitable, probably, that a discussion of the legacy of that event by a group of civil rights veterans would turn to the mass gathering that very day at the Lincoln Memorial called by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck.

But first Afrique Kilimanjaro, editor of the Carolina Peacemaker and daughter of the newspaper’s founder made a well-prepared set of remarks about the history of the black press in North Carolina and her father’s legacy as a publisher. Breaking from script, Kilimanjaro cited YES! Weekly.

“The significance of that paper is that the founders, the people who established YES! Weekly, also helped establish the Carolina Peacemaker 43 years ago,” she said. “And that would be the Womack family.”

Charles A. Womack Sr., a white Virginia businessman, had served on the Danville City Council from 1958 to 1966 and had antagonized his conservative colleagues by supporting desegregation. A 1963 Danville Register article tells of how a rival council member made a motion to censure Womack for attempting to set up a “biracial committee” to negotiate between the city and civil rights demonstrators.

In 1967, Womack provided financial support to help John Marshall Stevenson, who had been a theater professor at NC A&T College in Greensboro, found the Carolina Peacemaker. Stevenson, who later changed his name to Kilimanjaro, has been in poor health in recent years and has largely relinquished the operation of the Peacemaker to his wife and daughter. John Marshall Kilimanjaro and Vickie Kilimanjaro sat in the back row of the auditorium-style classroom during the program.

In 2005, Womack Sr.’s grandson, known simply as Charles Womack, founded YES! Weekly in Greensboro.

Ever provocative, Sieber answered a question posed to the panel about how the election of the nation’s first African- American president has affected race relations, and he soon found himself denouncing Beck with a playful turn of phrase that almost gave the impression he had inadvertently stumbled on the subject.

“I think Mr. Obama is the best thing that happened to America in a long time,” Sieber said. “America needed that negative impact because it’s brought the whole subject of civil rights to the fore, and it allows people who are a little crazy like me and a little crazy like Dr. Kilimanjaro and a little crazy like all of us, because we’re speaking too loudly.

“We have to learn that we have to protect our society and our ability to work,” Sieber continued. “But we have no business protecting this country — this beautiful country — from rascals, crooks, scum like Mr. Beck — just to mention someone casually — and even some of these great political leaders of our Congress who are playacting, again, because they don’t want the issue raised. You’re going to see bills passed very shortly that are being raised to shut people like me up. I’m not going to be shut up.”

During the discussion, Sieber explored one of the great arguments of his life: His belief that white people have generally been unwilling to desegregate black institutions. He said many people have bought into a false notion that integration was successfully accomplished.

“When I worked for the Peacemaker, Dr. Kilimanjaro bought into it,” Sieber said. “Do you think he was crazy, and started bringing up the fact that white people needed to desegregate the black community? He’d have been out of business in five minutes. Lyndon Johnson influenced everybody, not Martin Luther King, by convincing them that they needed to be very quiet about what white folks aren’t doing.

“It’s alright to have the voice of Martin Luther King raised above the crowd that we should act like brothers,” he added, “but to act like wife and husband, for example, would be a hell of a thing for even Martin Luther King to have said.”

The legacy of the civil rights movement, for at least the past three decades, has been a tricky dynamic to capture, fraught as it is by the tension between its veterans’ sense of accomplishment and its heirs’ puzzlement over what, if any, obligations are left to them.

The younger members of the audience solicited advice, and Sieber eagerly dispensed it in strong doses made up of equal measures of civic engagement and Christian compassion.

“We’ve got no business voting in anybody less than a complete supporter of not only the Constitution but the principles that have to do with doing right by our neighbor,” he said. “So I think the role is — well, each of you has a role — but most of our senators and congressmen don’t have any roles. They’re going to pack up and go home rather than speak too loudly. But who can shut you up? No one. And you need to play it straight. Be fair to your neighbor. Get your neighbor involved in discussing the subject. And remember you are the key to the future. It was a handful of students from A&T, not the city council of those days, not the chamber of commerce certainly [who brought about change].”

Old age can be an isolating experience, and Sieber still seeks fellow travelers on the journey of social justice.

“I hope that all of you don’t get mad at me,” he said. “I’m still listed in the phone directory. It’s awfully lonesome in that little, affordable village for retired people that I live in. Awfully lonesome. And I have to tell you that I usually get phone calls raising hell with me. Raising hell. And I don’t think if this gets out that I made so much noise, that the noise control organization of Greensboro is going to start coming with their answers.”