Woolworth’s sit-ins legacy is contested in debate over city council arrests

by Jordan Green

Five students intentionally subjected themselves to arrest by causing a disturbance at a recent Greensboro City Council meeting, after calling attention to what they called a “subculture of corruption” within the police department. (photo by Quentin L. Richardson)

In countless seminars and panel discussions, the surviving members of the Greensboro Four have urged young people to put aside self-involvement and stand up against injustices as they find them today instead of settling into passive hero worship.

For the past five decades in Greensboro it’s been mainly the civil rights generation, now nearing retirement, that has spoken out and risked arrest. That changed on May 4, when almost a dozen college students took over the dais during intermission at a Greensboro City Council meeting and began calling for reforms in the police department, with five of them ultimately making a conscious decision to get arrested.

Cherrell Brown, a rising senior at NC A&T University, said the words of Franklin McCain at the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, helped steel her determination to take a stand.

“Don’t wait for the masses when you want change,” said McCain, one of the surviving members of the quartet that initiated the desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter. “Don’t ever ask permission to start a revolution, because people don’t like change.”

Brown said that she and other students from a group called Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative had previously met with Mayor Bill Knight. She said they were pushed over the tipping point by the mayor’s noncommittal response to a demand by the students to apologize for a remark that he made during his campaign. Knight has said that police Chief Tim Bellamy, who is black, was selected for his job because of race.

“We were asking him to make an apology,” Brown said. “We felt that Mayor Knight was elected on appealing to that racist base. We didn’t feel like we got a satisfactory response, just the runaround, as usual. It comes a time when you can no longer just talk and talk. You’ve got to move forward.”

The students, along with six ministers who reinforced their action by subjecting themselves to arrest outside the police department the following day, have said on different occasions that they are trying to get the council to address “a subculture of corruption” within the police department. Members of Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative and their ecclesiastical elders in the Pulpit Forum have been speaking out about a host of interwoven issues such as the administrative discipline meted out to AJ Blake, a Latino officer; the gang enforcement unit’s alleged harassment of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation; unresolved allegations of discrimination brought by 39 black officers; and council discussions about a monetary settlement to David Wray, who resigned in 2006 in the wake of allegations of racial profiling within the department.

“We have a Latino officer who was charged with two charges and then acquitted,” Cherrell Brown said of AJ Blake. “We had an officer shoot and kill an unarmed black man without a reprimand. As a double standard, that’s a classic one. The detective said he didn’t see any evidence [against Blake], but he was told to press charges anyway. Because of this, this man lost wages. He might lose his ability to work as a police officer for five years.”

Officer Christopher Schultheis, who was determined by District Attorney Doug Henderson to have acted appropriately in the shooting death of James Paschal Jr., testified against Blake in Guilford County Superior Court last year. Blake was acquitted by a jury of all charges, but must appear later this month before the NC Criminal Justice Training and Standards Commission, which will determine whether his law enforcement license is suspended for five years.

City administrators and city council alike dismiss the notion that a “subculture of corruption” is operating within the Greensboro Police Department with the tacit approval of Chief Bellamy.

“I disagree with that,” said Michael Speedling, the assistant city manager for public safety and human resources. “Like every department, we have issues that we have to contend with. I think to say that the Greensboro Police Department is corrupt is grossly overgeneralized and inaccurate.”

Several council members contest one statement in particular made by members of the Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative.

“In terms of the settlement that was offered to police Chief David Wray, that would be rewarding corruption,” Cherrell Brown said.

“At a council meeting, we said there was a 7-1 vote,” she added.

“We stand corrected; it was an 8-1 vote.” Asked who provided the information, Brown said, “I can’t disclose who. It’s a reliable person.”

The council has not taken any action in open session to settle a lawsuit filed against the city by Wray.

Echoing a statement by Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny called the protesters’ claims about a settlement offer “absolutely inaccurate,” but declined to explain exactly how they were wrong.

“Have we discussed settling and what to do with the case of David Wray? Absolutely,” he said. “Did we discuss a $750,000 settlement to [the 39 black] offi cers? Absolutely.”

Brown said the protesters would like council to clarify its position on a possible settlement with Wray.

“The correct step for the council to take would be to publicly say they’re not going to offer any settlement to David Wray,” she said. “If that is true, then we hope they stick with it.”

A federal lawsuit filed by the 39 black officers suggests that The Rhinoceros Times’ publication of the names of the 39 black officers and a confidential settlement offer of $750,000 caused the council to rescind the offer, under political pressure from outraged constituents. A statement by Matheny in a recent interview with YES! Weekly contradicts that version of events.

“It was given, turned down, and then taken off the table,” he said. “It came back to us two weeks later. They wanted more money, and we turned it down.”

Jason Knight, a member of the legal team representing the black officers, indicated in an e-mail that it was Matheny whose account was incorrect.

“Simply put, the documents tell a different story than the one put forth by Councilman Matheny,” Knight said, “and I stand behind our amended complaint 100 percent.”

Despite council members’ insistence that there is no corruption in the police department to address, the city has been quietly implementing a number of personnel and discipline changes since Speedling was appointed assistant city manager for public safety and human resources, a position that gives him direct supervision over the police and human resources departments.

“What we found with the grievance process is that there wasn’t any real consistency across the city [organization] itself,” Speedling said. “The same process in the police department has to be the same process in the fire department and field operations. As far as punishments go, the human resources department is going to be reviewing all punishments, so you don’t have two people committing the same offense, and one person is suspended and another person is terminated. There’s going to be consistency in how those decisions are made.

“The best way to change a culture is to make sure that your policies and procedures are appropriate,” he added. “You have to be disciplined enough to follow your policies and procedures, and make sure people are held accountable at all levels.”

Speedling has taken a philosophical view of the successive civil disobedience actions, noting that he had spoken to one of the pastors arrested, the Rev. Cardes Brown, the following day.

“Both the protesters and the police have treated each other with dignity and respect,” he said. “I wish the incident had not taken place. We’re committed to treating them with dignity and respect, and I believe they’re committed to being peaceful in their protest.”

Matheny speaks for many council members in rejecting the notion that the protesters are acting in the tradition of the 1960s sit-in movement.

“The Greensboro Four walked from A&T to Woolworth’s and simply asked for a cup of coffee,” Matheny said. “They didn’t try to take over Woolworth’s. They weren’t loud and disruptive. That is a poor correlation.”

Then Matheny invoked the name of one of the four surviving members of the

Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil.

“I respect the hell out of Joe McNeil, whom I had the good fortune of meeting,” Matheny said. “These guys, in my opinion, don’t represent my good friend, Joe McNeil.”

Cherrell Brown noted that the elected leadership in Greensboro didn’t exactly applaud the Greensboro Four at the time of the Woolworth’s sit-ins, and she hardly expected different 50 years later. She submitted a somewhat diplomatic rebuttal to Matheny.

“For him to speak on behalf of great civil rights leaders I think was inaccurate, but his opinion is his own,” Brown said. “He deemed it disrespectful. I think it was necessary.”