By Meron Moges-Gerbi, CNN
(CNN) — Charges against four men who were arrested in 1947 after launching the first of the “freedom rides” to fight Jim Crow Laws have been posthumously dismissed by a North Carolina judge 75 years after their convictions.
During a special session Friday leading up to the weekend celebration of Juneteenth, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour dismissed charges against civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Andrew Johnson, James Felmet and Igal Roodenko.
Judge Baddour, along with his decision, issued an emotional apology.
“Today’s session is an opportunity for us to make an amends publicly… We failed these men in Orange County, in Chapel Hill,” said Baddour. “We failed their cause and we failed to deliver justice in our community. And for that, I apologize.”
Baddour continued: “We’re doing this today to right a wrong, in public and on the record because these offenses, these events, happened all over the country and very little documented evidence of the court process exists. I do not want to erase history, but we must shine a light on it.”
In April 1947, 16 people — eight Black and eight White — set out on a tour of cities in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky to fight existing racial segregation laws. Four men were among the 16 who were arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus.
Rustin, a prominent civil rights leader, spent 22 days working on a prison chain gang in Roxboro, North Carolina. He was a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King and helped push nonviolent ideas and tactics. Former President Barack Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Renée Price, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, told CNN while she was researching how to honor the so-called Freedom Riders of the 1960s she realized there was nothing in the history books that mentioned whether the charges were dropped for the four men convicted in 1947 in Orange County, North Carolina. It bothered her. She made a call to Baddour’s office and his team discovered nothing had been done regarding the charges against the four men. Baddour’s office then began work on a motion to vacate the charges.
“It was important because this action itself in a way removed another shackle of bondage from our minds, from our spirit so it really fit with Freedom Day Juneteenth,” Price told CNN. “We corrected the narrative these men were in no way criminals.”
“We still have a lot more work to do as people of color, but it was surreal” Price continued. “When I think about it 75 years later as a Black woman standing as an elected official in the same Southern courtroom they were convicted in and [Rustin] was arrested for trying to sit next to a White person. It meant a lot to remove those convictions.”
Price, who was in attendance at the hearing, told CNN she closed her remarks Friday with a quote from Rustin. “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” she said. “We need to keep stirring things until we have justice.”
Public Defender Woodrena Baker, the first Black female public defender in the county, said she grew up in a predominately White neighborhood, facing abuse and name calling, which led her to become a public defender.
“These gentlemen stood up for what they believed in. They got arrested to do hard labor just because of their beliefs,” she told CNN.
“You have four gentlemen sacrificing themselves for the needs of others, that is what I felt in the courtroom that day. I could visualize the sacrifices that they made in order to benefit everyone,” she continued.
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