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How a Black man's 1970 murder spurred change in rural North Carolina

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We have something a little different this morning, starting with some people who are very special to me.

PHYLLIS JONES: OK. My name is Phyllis Jones, and I am currently living in Las Vegas, Nev.

BEN THORPE: My name is Ben Thorpe. I live in Seattle, Wash., area.

RASCOE: I know both of these people 'cause Phyllis Jones is my mother - my mommy, so I'm going to call her mommy from here on out. And then Mr. Ben Thorpe - we call him Uncle Anthony because for some reason, men in our family - we call them by their middle names. My mom's retired now. So's Uncle Anthony. They're part of a family of seven siblings, all spread out, living in different places. Home, though - home is still Oxford, N.C., even though, as you're about to hear, that's complicated.

JONES: The house next to us - that was the white family, and they played with us. But they wouldn't play with us in public. They only played with us at home because we were Black, so they couldn't show openly that we were, you know, really good friends.

RASCOE: Back at this point in the 1960s and '70s, Oxford, N.C., was about as country as you could get. Picture Mayberry but not that friendly. It's only about 30 miles from Durham - a lot of churches, a bunch of grass and cows and fields where tobacco used to be the big money crop. I'd heard stories from mommy before, obviously. I knew she grew up in the Jim Crow South and, basically, what that entailed - horrible things like separate and unequal schools, Black people having to drink out of the colored water fountain. But this story about her neighbors, the white kids she played with, I had no idea.

Where would you see them around? You would see them in town, and they would act like they didn't know you?

JONES: Yeah. If we were out, they didn't know us.

RASCOE: Here's the thing. This is well into the civil rights era. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, laws in a lot of the country were changing, but Oxford was not. My mom and her siblings are not in any history books. Their stories are not unique. But in a country that still struggles mightily over race and the impacts of slavery and Jim Crow, these stories show that the past is not dead. It's living and breathing and close. That's why we're profiling members of the civil rights generation. Those names you know, like Fred Gray, an attorney for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and those you don't, like my mom, Phyllis, and my Uncle Anthony.

Do y'all feel like y'all are the civil rights generation?

JONES: Of course. Yes.

RASCOE: Why?

JONES: Oh, because of - during the period of time that I was born, we couldn't eat at restaurants. We had to go to the side. I was going to an all-Black school, and of course, we had the raggedy books. We did not have the best buses. And we were constantly told how to act, how to walk when we were in public so that we would not get exposed or attacked in any way.

RASCOE: And what about you, Uncle Anthony?

THORPE: Well, I was born in the early '60s, and on my birth certificate it has Negro, so I guess I'm born in that time, that generation. And sometimes, I looked at my older relatives like my aunts and uncles when - we were still farming at the time. And when some of the older gentlemen came around that they used to work for, they still were saying yes, sir and no, sir.

RASCOE: To the older white people that they used to work for?

THORPE: Right. And so they taught us to say that same thing, to say yes, sir and no, sir.

RASCOE: Was there a point that you realized, like, you live in a segregated place? Like, I'm Black, and because of that it's different for me.

JONES: Well, to me, it was just normal. We couldn't do a lot of things because of our color. We knew that. I always remember us going to the 5- and 10-cent store. Mama would give us the lecture. She would tell us not to move, stand still. And we had to wait in the back in the corner, and then the waitress would take her time, and we have to go back to the car and eat the food. I do remember that 'cause I - you know, in my mind, I'm thinking, wow, they're sitting down. We - you know, we can't sit down. But because of the way my mama raised us, we didn't question it. It was just - this is what you do.

THORPE: Right. And just to add - I think that that's why my mother, when she went shopping, she would leave us in front of the church. And my mom would park under these shady trees and leave us there while she would go shopping uptown. It was very rare in our younger years that she would let us go with her uptown because she was so afraid. She was so afraid something would happen. And so, you know, we always waited for her to come back around that corner with some ice cream cones.

JONES: Yes. That was our treat (laughter).

THORPE: For being good.

RASCOE: Something did happen in Oxford, N.C. in 1970. Right across from where my great-grandfather lived, a young Black man, Henry "Dickie" Marrow, was brutally murdered outside a local store by the white shop owners who accused him of saying something they didn't like to a white woman. Again, this is 1970. Another son of Oxford, Ben Chavis, heard about the murder about an hour after it happened.

BEN CHAVIS: I went to the local police station. I remember talking to Chief White (ph), and he says, well, it's under investigation. I said, under investigation? A man has been shot. And they were there like I was agitating them for asking about it.

RASCOE: Unlike my mom and uncle, you will read about Chavis in the history books. He's a civil rights leader. He was a card-carrying member of the NAACP by age 12 and would go on to become president of the organization.

CHAVIS: My only regret was that I probably should have gotten moving when I was 6 rather than 12.

RASCOE: By 14, he was a youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. So when Henry Marrow was killed, Chavis, in his early 20s, was already a seasoned organizer. After an all-white jury acquitted the men who shot Marrow, Chavis decided it was time for change.

CHAVIS: So we led a march from Oxford to Raleigh, which is about 45 miles, and we started out with maybe around a couple hundred people marching. By the time we got to Raleigh, we had over 3,000 people in the march. It just grew.

RASCOE: Keep in mind Oxford is a small town. Black people had to shop at white-owned businesses, so Chavis and others decided to hit the white people in town where it hurt - their pocketbooks.

So what went into the decision to say, we are going to boycott, and we are going to, as the Black people in this community, to do this economic withdrawal?

CHAVIS: It wasn't a single decision. People knew that something needed to be done, or else this is going to happen again. And we figured that - why spend our money with people who don't respect us? Why spend our money in a municipality that refuses to hire - there were no Blacks working in the courthouse, in the clerk's office, none in the fire department, only one, I think, Black guy in the police department. He wasn't allowed to arrest whites. And so we were marching not only - and boycotting not only to get justice for Henry Marrow, but we expanded it because we had certain demands.

RASCOE: My mom and uncle were around 12 and 10 years old at this point. My grandparents didn't talk to them about the murder, but they remember the boycott and having to shop in nearby Roxboro. It was also a time of unrest. Protesters burned white-owned businesses and tobacco crops. Here's my mom.

JONES: During that time, they also had a curfew, and my dad didn't get off until after 11, so he would get stopped by the sheriff or state troopers trying to find out why he was out, and he always had to keep his uniform on because then they knew he worked at the hospital.

THORPE: I was more fearful. My mom would stay up by the door, looking out the window. And we would stay up 'cause - she would send us to bed, but we couldn't sleep. We stayed awake until my father came home because we knew he was going - he'd either get stopped by the state troopers, or he would get stopped by the local cop or even by the FBI.

RASCOE: Thank God my grandfather, who was an orderly, always made it home safely. After months of protests, Ben Chavis says change did come to Oxford, finally.

CHAVIS: A lot of our demands were met. People got jobs downtown, lots for the first time in their life. And they're still working there. So we desegregated a lot of the city. Now, a lot of the stores that refused to desegregate closed. Like, the theater, rather than desegregate, just closed.

RASCOE: And change came to the segregated schools, as well. In the midst of all of this, in the fall of 1970, Uncle Anthony was part of a test group of Black children sent to a white school. He was in third grade, the same grade as my son Reggie (ph). He remembers being scared getting on that bus to school.

THORPE: Now we on a bus with mixed race. We didn't know anything about that.

RASCOE: What was that like? Were they nice on the bus?

THORPE: This is what they did. They assigned seats. So they put us all together, so we went out there to sit with them.

RASCOE: So y'all was still segregated on the bus?

THORPE: Still segregated. And every day, you know, we had bomb threats. We stays - a lot of times I decided to beginning of school (ph) because they don't want us...

RASCOE: Y'all had bomb threats?

THORPE: Yes, we had bomb threats and - yeah, 'cause, you know, a lot of individuals in the community did not want us at the all-white school.

RASCOE: That was something else that I didn't know - my uncle at 10 facing bomb threats just for going to school. These are stories that shaped the history of our family and, ultimately, the history of this country. My grandparents didn't talk openly about these things with their kids. They did that to protect them. My mom and her siblings just want people to know the truth.

JONES: I wanted my children to know things that happened so you guys could tell it to your children and so on. But also, I wanted them to know the story so that they could pursue an even better life than what our parents or our grandparents had. If you know your history, then you understand things much better.

THORPE: But I look at it like this. It has always been a challenge because some things change, but the parameters are still there. The bigotry is still there. If I can walk up in a department store or I could walk out in the mall and someone don't be following me around, I think that's when I know things has really changed.

RASCOE: That was Ben, Uncle Anthony Thorpe, my mommy, Phyllis Jones, and Dr. Ben Chavis, all members of the civil rights generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.