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Jesse Helms and the State take on one UNC Professor

by Lyle Jones 

Albert Amon was an Assistant Professor of Psychology and in the spring of 1963 he regularly accompanied evening protestors of segregation practices at retail businesses in Chapel Hill. While he had not been a participant in the nonviolent protests, he was sympathetic to their cause and he became accepted as the unofficial photographer of the Chapel Hill Freedom Movement. Al’s faculty office was in Nash Hall on Pittsboro Street at the Psychometric Laboratory. I was the Lab Director and Al and I were close friends. He met with me each morning after a protest to tell me about his adventures the prior evening. Al suffered both from acute asthma and from serious hypertensive disorders; he told me and many others that he expected not to live very long. He explained to me that medications for either disease served to increase the level of the other, but that his attendance at protests served to relieve the symptoms of both diseases, leaving him in a welcome state of exhilaration.

Civil Rights Protestors In Chapel Hill

This is a protest at the Dairy Bar which was located where The Courtyard is today. The Dairy Bar had the best malted-milkshakes in North Carolina, and also served burgers, drinks, and fries at their sitdown counter. Blacks were not allowed sitdown service here or at the Colonial Drug Store across the street until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1966.  

As protests in Chapel Hill gained more widespread attention, conservative forces in North Carolina expressed greater concern and became more openly critical of efforts to overturn existing State statutes that supported racial segregation. The prevailing view as expressed in the media was that the protests were led by communists on campus. Of interest is one of Jesse Helms' 5-minute editorials on TV station WRAL in the first week of June, 1963: he recommended that the NC legislature consider enacting an a law such as that proposed in Ohio to make illegal the presence of communists or communist sympathizers as speakers on state university campuses. At the time, Helms’ suggestion appeared to have been largely ignored.

Jesse Helms 1963 WRAL

Jesse Helms believed that the Civil Rights movement in Chapel Hill was being inspired by communists who were coming to speak at UNC.

Al Amon reported to me on the morning of June 11 about his traumatic experience in Raleigh on the previous evening when he had driven to the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, transporting three young African-American women who intended to try to register for a room that night. The hotel at that time served many NC legislators when the legislature was in session as it was then. Legislators were aware that a demonstration was afoot and had lined two-and-three deep on both sides of the path from the doorway to the registration desk so that the three young ladies were subject to extreme verbal abuse as they walked in to register. Of course, they were denied. Al stayed outside, but when asked by a legislator who he was and where he was employed, he stated that he was Al Amon, Assistant Professor in the Psychometric Lab at UNC (as Al told me and as also reported in the front-page story of the News & Observer of June 11, 1963). As he and I talked, Al was called by phone and asked to report to the office of Chancellor William Aycock. Al then returned to tell me that the Chancellor had received a call from a legislator in Raleigh, demanding that the Chancellor “fire that bastard Amon or else”. Aycock had replied that that was not the way the university did business. The Chancellor told Al that his Raleigh visit had created serious problems for the University, but that Al had the rights of every citizen to express himself freely so long as the expression remained within the law.

North Carolina Lunch-Counter Sit-In

The two blacks in this photo are sitting down "illegally" at this counter waiting for service. They were arrested soon after this picture was taken. 

North Carolina Secretary of State Thad Eure observed the demonstration at the hotel on June 10 and was asked by Legislator Philip Goodwin (who was among those in the hotel lobby on June 10) to find some means of retribution "when UNC officials refused to discipline professors involved in the Raleigh protests". (Note that no professor other than Amon was present at the protests, Amon at that time had never been a protestor. He was an observer and a photographer, although later in 1963 and in early 1964, he became an active demonstrator at the Watts restaurant in Chapel Hill.) Eure acquired a copy of the Ohio proposal, adapted it for NC, and delivered it to Godwin on Tuesday, June 25. That same day it passed both the House and the Senate as HR 1395 and both bodies adjourned for the year. Eure boasted that he “kept it quiet between Monday and Wednesday from Governor Sanford". It was kept quiet from President Friday as well, and until its edition of Thursday, June 27, the N&O had published no report of the Act having been passed.

UNC President Bill Friday

Bill Friday was the University of North Carolina President when the Speaker Ban law was enacted and fought hard to overturn it.

Eure has said, "It is absolutely correct to say the sit-ins [at the Sir Walter Hotel] were partly the motivation behind the [Speaker Ban Bill]". Another North Caolina legislator, "If you have to single out one issue to say what triggered it, it was Al Lowenstein [and the white professors] demonstrating in front of the Sir Walter Hotel filled with legislators from rural North Carolina". (Lowenstein was not present and as noted, the only professor there was Al Amon, not a participant, although having provided transportation for the three who were.)

Of course other issues also were in play, but had Amon not gone to the hotel on June 10, I believe there would not have enough heat to have generated by devious means and without debate HR1395 as it was enacted on June 25.

Chapel Hill Civil Rights Freedom March

Alnert Amon took many photo of civil rights demonstration in Chapel Hill including the one above.

Later in 1963, Amon testified as a witness in Judge Raymond Mallard’s Orange County Superior Court. He then was charged by Judge Mallard with “inducing and procuring” another professor to trespass. Amon apologetically asked me for a loan of $500, the amount ordered by the judge to avoid arrest and detention; I was able to do so (and the loan was later repaid). The demonstrations and the Hillsboro trials are discussed in detail in John Ehle, The Free Men (1965) New York: Harper & Row. Several of Amon’s photographs are in that book, and many more are in the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library.

In late summer, 1964, Al awoke at about 2am to walk to the medicine cabinet for asthma inhalator. Tragically, he collapsed in the enjoining room and died.




Lyle Jones      8:28 PM Wed 9/15/2010

Jessica,<br \><br \>See the John Ehle book mentioned in the article for a full discussion of the controversy among residents. Supporting the demonstrators meant<br \>supporting the violation of existing State law regarding trespass on the property of merchants. The violation of that law resulted in arrest , conviction, and prison time. Remember, this was prior to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrea Kenan      11:16 AM Tue 9/14/2010

I grew up in Chapel Hill in the 1980s when Jesse Helms was one of our state’s U.S. senators. I did not realize he got his start on television. I was wondering if in the 1960s Jesse Helms was a segregationist, and if so, did he ever regret or apologize for that stance?

Jessica Sanders      4:02 PM Mon 9/13/2010

Great piece and a poignant reminder of how things use to be in Chapel Hill. I have heard that only a handful of the resident white population was ever active in the civil rights movement in town.

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There would probably be no Chapel Hill if the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees in 1793 had not chosen land across from New Hope Chapel for the location of the university. By 1800 there were about 100 people living in thirty houses surrounding the campus.



The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.





The University of North Carolina was closed from 1870 to 1875 because of lack of state funding.





William Ackland left his art collection and $1.25 million to Duke University in 1940 on the condition that he would be buried in the art museum that the University was to build with his bequest. Duke rejected this condition even though members of the Duke Family are buried in Duke Chapel. What followed was a long and acrimonious legal battle between Ackland relatives who now wanted the inheritance, Rollins College, and the University of North Carolina, each attempting to receive the funds. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1949 UNC was awarded the money for the museum. Ackland is buried near the museum's entrance. When the museum first opened, in the early sixties, there were rumors that his remains were leaking out of the mausoleum.



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Chapel Hill High School and Chapel Hill Junior High were on Franklin Street in the same location as University Square until the mid 1960s.



The Colonial Drug Store at 450 West Franklin Street was owned and operated by John Carswell. It was famous for a fresh-squeezed carbonated orange beverage called a "Big O". In the early 1970s, I managed the Record and Tape Center next door, and must have had over 100 of those drinks. The Colonial Drug Store closed in 1996.



Sutton's Drugstore, which opened in 1923, has one of the last soda fountains in the South. It is one of the few businesses remaining on Franklin Street that was in operation when I was growing up in the 1950s.



Future President Gerald Ford lived in Chapel Hill twice. First when he was 24, in 1938, he took a law couse in summer school at UNC. He lived in the Carr Building, which was a law school dormitory. At the same time, Richard Nixon, the man he served under as Vice President, was attending law school at Duke. In 1942, Ford returned to Chapel Hill to attend the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. He lived in a rental house on Hidden Hills Drive.



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