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Posted on: May 25, 2022

Ceremony apologizes for wrongful convictions of four Freedom Riders in 1947

Photo of district court judges

On the 75th anniversary of the wrongful arrest of four “freedom riders” in Chapel Hill, Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe and District Court Judges Joal Broun, Sherri Murrell and Hathaway Pendergrass took turns reading a statement apologizing for the miscarriage of justice that occurred in 1947.

The Statement from District Court was read May 20 at a public event in the Hillsborough Courthouse recognizing the 75th anniversary of the first Freedom Rides in 1947. The Journey of Reconciliation, an interracial freedom ride organized by Bayard Rustin and George Houser to protest Jim Crow bus segregation, came through Chapel Hill in April 1947.

As the riders attempted to board a bus to continue the journey to Greensboro, several were removed by force and were attacked by angry cab drivers. Four of the Freedom Riders--Andrew Johnson, James Felmet, Bayard Rustin, and Igal Roodenko--were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move from the front of the bus. Following a trial in Orange County, the four men were convicted and sentenced to 30 days on the chain gang.

The Courthouse program, entitled “The Long Road to Justice: The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation,” featured a keynote address by UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol, Freedom songs performed by Mary D. Williams, spoken word poetry by CJ Suitt and remarks by former Public Defender James E. Williams, Jr.

Pictured: Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe is speaking and from left to right, District Court Judges Sherri Murrell, Joal Broun and Hathaway Pendergrass.

Statement of the Orange County District Court Judges:

The freedom riders who were attacked by an angry mob in Chapel Hill in April 1947 were charged with disorderly conduct and were tried on those charges before a judge in Orange County Recorder Court in May 1947. (Recorder Court is now known as District Court). A judge in Orange County sentenced the men to 30 days on a chain gang.

The Orange County Court was on the wrong side of the law in May 1947, and it was on the wrong side of history. Today, we stand before our community on behalf of all five District Court Judges for Orange and Chatham Counties and accept the responsibility entrusted to us to do our part to eliminate racial disparities in our justice system.

We are committed to serving this community with open eyes and open hearts—willing to see, acknowledge and take intentional steps to rectify the biases and effects of systemic racism that are still present in our courts today.

On behalf of the District Court for Judicial District 15B, we acknowledge that Andrew Johnson, James Felmet, Bayard Rustin, and Igal Roodenko did not receive fair and equal treatment in our court in May 1947.

We offer our sincere apology to the men who were prosecuted, to their families, to our community, and to all people of color who continued to be subjected to the unconstitutional laws of segregation because of local courts failing to follow federal precedent.