Unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

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We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. this week. In addition to his courageous acts and inspiring words, I have learned from less famous people who worked with King. One of them lived right here in the Triangle.

Douglas E. Moore was a Methodist pastor in Durham who eventually became a prominent civil rights activist, serving with King as a board member on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

But Moore first attracted attention on his own. Negative attention.

On June 23, 1957, the 28-year-old Moore organized and led the Royal Ice Cream sit-in. He and six other Black patrons refused to leave the whites-only section of the Durham restaurant. After their arrest, they were heavily criticized not only by white public officials but also the religious leaders of the Black community. Such nonviolent civil disobedience was considered too radical.

Moore argued that sit-ins would spark “local movement centers” that would galvanize efforts of resistance, especially among Black youth. History proved Moore correct as subsequent sit-ins in Greensboro sparked a nationwide campaign.

But before those protests helped create the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, Moore wrote a letter to King describing his own efforts to desegregate America.

Moore boarded a public bus in Asheboro and sat down in the front. He refused to move. The white driver summoned the police, but the officer declined to arrest Moore. The driver had no choice but to proceed with the route. Moore passed the time by singing hymns. In his letter to King, he characterized his efforts as “relying completely upon the force of love and Christian witness.”

Is that how the white driver would have heard Moore?

Almost 60 years later, I try to imagine myself as that white bus driver. Just trying to do my job. Not wanting any trouble. A family at home and bills to pay. And here comes this young man on my bus, willfully breaking the law then rubbing it in by singing in my ear!

As we celebrate MLK Day and look back on the civil rights era, we want to believe we would side with the heroes. But if I am honest, I keep my head down and mind my own business more often than I stand up and speak up for others. I justify my own inaction and silence in a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s good, even holy, to notice what inconveniences me or even flat out annoys me.

Just who is singing in my ear?

In his letter to King, Moore continued the story. A few weeks later, he got on another bus in Lexington and saw the very same driver! Only this time, the driver confided that he was undergoing financial hardships. He asked Moore to pray for him.

There are many unsung heroes of the past, including Douglas E. Moore. And there are countless names lost to history whose stories can still inspire. I offer to you this bus driver’s holy humility and change of heart in hopes to inspire songs of justice in our time.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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