The Progressive Pastor

The Progressive Pastor

Though he's never held office, Chapel Hill owes much of its reputation as a place of tolerance and social justice to the Rev. Robert Seymour.

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Photo By Briana Brough

Fifty years ago, just months after the assassination of President Kennedy and years of often violent protests across the South, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Its solemn weight forced balance on the long-skewed scales of blind justice and put to rest a chapter in the history of Chapel Hill that was so ugly – so grossly black and white in its open prejudice – that many today find it hard to believe such dissent raged in a famously liberal college town.

In the early 1960s, Chapel Hill was not the welcome melting pot of diverse cultures and political thought that it is today. African-American students were reasonably safe on campus but at risk elsewhere. They were not permitted to eat at restaurants or attend a movie. A walk down Franklin Street invited taunts and shoves. Much worse happened to many who dared to demand better treatment.

A progressive white pastor found the situation intolerable. Tall and confident, he stood in front of the old Colonial Drug Store holding a protest sign above his thick black hair. He also spent considerable time in less visible gatherings, working to persuade town leaders and others with influence that such despicable treatment of black neighbors had to stop.

The Rev. Robert Seymour, now 90, remembers the era with such clarity that talking about the horrors he witnessed makes his soft voice hoarse with emotion.

“It became quite dangerous. People were literally lying down in the street to stop traffic, just to be heard,” says Seymour, who spent 50 years ministering to an increasingly diverse flock at Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church. “A lot of people today don’t understand the magnitude of what happened here. They don’t understand that it was a transformational decade that changed Chapel Hill forever.”

Violations persisted even after the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land. Binkley members persisted, too, pairing up to ensure that restaurants provided required accommodations to black citizens. Seymour once accompanied a young man for dinner at The Pines, where members of the UNC basketball team often were served. “When they saw Dean Smith was with us, the door opened wide,” Seymour says.

Seymour later urged Smith to recruit the best African-American basketball player available. He brought in Charlie Scott, who led Carolina to two NCAA Final Fours and enjoyed a long professional career. “Let me tell you,” Seymour adds with a laugh, “Dean Smith never had to teach Sunday school again.”

FRUITFUL AND HAPPY

Seymour grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, a small town where racial division was as traditional as biscuits at breakfast. When he was sent by the Navy to Yale Divinity School to become a chaplain, he was amazed to see black students and white students peaceably co-existing in classrooms and dormitories. He reckoned that Southern churches in need of a new preacher might disapprove of his progressive training. However, his first job landed him at the newly organized, liberal congregation of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte. His next assignment was at the conservative Warrenton Baptist in rural Warren County.

Warrenton, historically one of the poorest communities in the state, was more than 60% black at the time, but none dared to take a seat in the white church. Seeking a measure of conciliation at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Seymour urged the all- white police department to hire at least one black officer. “You’d have thought I started a revolution,” he recalls from his cozy home at Carol Woods. “There were some who thought it was time, but the majority did not want blacks having guns under any circumstance.”

Seymour decided to travel overseas to earn his doctorate in Edinburgh, Scotland. He worked as a “supply” preacher, filling in wherever a pastor was needed. “I pretended to be Presbyterian for a year,” he jokes. “It was a wonderful experience, but I was ready to come home.”

He next spent four years at Mars Hill College, which was perceived as a very conservative institution. “The people at the Baptist Convention in Raleigh warned them it would not be a good match. But when I arrived, a professor told me that Mars Hill has such a conservative reputation, you can do whatever you want and no one will suspect a thing.”

His time there was fruitful and happy, especially after he met Pearl Francis. “I always like to tell people I ran off with the church organist,” Seymour says of his beloved wife, who died in 2011. “But Pearl would always add, ‘We were both single at the time.’”

ALL INCLUSIVE

The Seymours came to Chapel Hill in April 1959 when he was chosen to lead Binkley Baptist Church, which then met on campus in Gerrard Hall. Forty white members – who intended their left-leaning church to be fully inclusive – had founded it the previous fall. Binkley enrolled in the Southern Baptist Convention but was voted out due to its position of welcoming and affirming homosexuals. It subsequently joined the Northern Baptist Convention, now known as American Baptist.

“Binkley was a turning point in my life,” says Seymour, who met the soon-to-be legendary Dean Smith on the day Seymour was officially installed at the church. By January, Binkley had its first black member, a UNC student who later became a physician. In 1962, as racial tensions increased in Chapel Hill, Seymour was notified of an extraordinary opportunity. Union Theo-logical Seminary in New York City received a grant to place black students in white churches as interns in exchange for sending white students to black churches.

“We jumped at the chance,” says Seymour, who welcomed Burgaw native Jim Forbes to the position. “We all thought we were free from prejudice, but we found that the life of a black person in Chapel Hill was more difficult than any of us could imagine.”

Seymour describes the first time they all gathered to celebrate communion, reciting words from a favorite hymn rooted in an African spiritual: In Christ there is no east or west; In Him no south or north; But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

“It was a very emotional scene,” Seymour says, his eyes shining. “Jim became a life-long friend.”

Rev. Dr. James Forbes also became one of the most distinguished and influential pastors in America. Today, he is senior minister emeritus of the 2,400-member Riverside Church in New York City and president of the Healing of the Nations Foundation.

‘HOW IT SHOULD BE’

Seymour’s circle of influence grew as he became involved in other social justice causes. Through the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, where he served seven years as the group’s founding president, he rallied citizens of all faiths to ensure that the less able had food to eat, clothes to wear and a decent place to live.

“It started because a few church women noticed these desperate situations right at our front door,” Seymour says, noting that some of Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s poor lived in homes with dirt floors and outdoor privies. “All they needed was a little help. People can go to the thrift shop and find nice things and walk down the street like anybody else. You don’t know who’s wealthy and who’s poor, and that’s how it should be.”

Billy Barnes, a photojournalist who documented the Civil Rights era, has long admired Seymour’s stalwart advocacy for the disenfranchised. “He’s a hero of the faith and a true Chapel Hill institution, right up there at the level of Bill Friday and Dean Smith,” he says. “It wouldn’t be the same place without him.”

Seymour worked to recruit candidates for elected office who would serve in the best interests of all constituents – including Howard Lee, who became Chapel Hill’s first African-American mayor in 1969. The Georgia native, who moved to Chapel Hill for graduate work at UNC and was soon after hired at Duke University, says he never imagined he’d win. He agreed to run to bring attention to failures in accommodations law when local Realtors refused to sell him a home for his young family.

“Dr. Seymour felt that it was the proper thing to do and the right time to do it,” says Lee, who served three terms before becoming a state senator. “There were a lot of progressive people who thought that my running would disrupt Chapel Hill, which was recovering from some of the nastiest battles that any town had experienced. But his blessing got people on board.”

Seymour also has been active in People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “Every day, you pick up the paper and read how people in prison have been vindicated through DNA evidence,” says Seymour, who becomes so riled that his beloved sheltie, Pastor, startles from his nap. “Murder by the state is still murder. Call it what it is. There’s no redemption possible when you put somebody to death.”

Stephen Dear, executive director of the organization, says Seymour “exemplifies servant leadership.”

“Bob Seymour represents to me the best of the South: compassionate, erudite, engaged, graceful and generous in every way,” says Dear, noting that the organization’s highest honor is named for Seymour. It was presented on Nov. 14 at UNC to Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. “I have seen him speak fearlessly and with authority to governors to stop executions. He is an inspiration.”

Of all his efforts, Seymour perhaps takes the most pride in convincing town leaders to provide a senior center that serves the diverse needs of Chapel Hill’s aging population. “I was very surprised when they named it for Pearl and me,” he says. “It’s the last thing I expected, considering I harassed them about it for 20 years.”

“It’s important that it’s called the Seymour Center and not the senior center,” says Janice Tyler, director of the Orange County Department of Aging. “He’s always been a great advocate for our senior programs, and he’s proud that we offer a wide range of programs that serve people of all income levels and backgrounds. We look forward to seeing him here every week.”

CONTINUING COMMITMENT

Though he retired from Binkley in 1988, Seymour cannot resist engaging in projects that will benefit his community. His current effort, bringing the Charles House Daytime Eldercare Center to Carol Woods, is deeply personal. The program provided care to Pearl in her final years, when her cheerful spirit was erased by the devastating impact of dementia.

“They’ve established a meaningful, structured day program for people with dementia, which few believed was possible,” Seymour says. “It was so important to Pearl and to me, and soon it will become available to more people in Chapel Hill.”

His next goal is to build support to create a permanent home for the town’s collection of Civil Rights artifacts, which currently are on display at the library. Since their histories are intertwined, he wants town and university leaders to unite in establishing a municipal museum – ideally located in the old town hall, which will become vacant after the men’s homeless shelter relocates next year.

The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the backdrop for so many pivotal moments in the town’s Civil Rights struggle, strikes Seymour as “an obvious place for a museum.”

“Two town board members took me aside and said it was not likely,” he says, pausing to pat Pastor, who jumps to his feet at recognizing the optimistic tone in Seymour’s voice. “But that’s never stopped me before.” CHM