I will never forget what a local civil rights activist in Robersonville, 100 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina, told me almost 40 years ago, when I noticed that she kept Jim Grant’s name and number by her telephone.
“Who else do you think I’m going to call if the Ku Klux Klan is shooting into my house or burning a cross in my front yard?” she asked me. (She was serious: the Klan had previously done both.) She looked at me as if I was crazy not to know why she’d keep his number so handy.
Then she told me, “Honey, when you call Jim Grant, he’s coming. He’s coming right away, and when he gets here, I’m telling you, you will think that God sent you an avenging angel.”
I got the call a week ago, on the afternoon of November 21st. Jim had had a fall a few days earlier, I was told. He had hurt his head badly, and the doctors said that there was nothing that they could do.
He had died that morning, at the age of 84. He had, as my grandmother used to say, crossed over the river.
He was one of the great civil rights organizers of our times. Among those active in the civil rights movement, he was renowned for his courage, his daring and the ferocity with which he defended African American communities when they were threatened.
But people also revered him for his refusal to give up hope, his gentleness, his quiet, steady compassion and for the way that he understood humanity’s insides, both the light and the dark.
His full name was James Earll Grant, Jr., but everybody called him “Jim.” He was born in Beaufort County, South Carolina, in 1937. When he was a boy, his family moved to a town near Hartford, Connecticut, where he was involved in his first sit-in protest in 1949.
At that tender age of thirteen, he and his somewhat older teenage friends succeeded in integrating a local department store’s lunch counter. It was the first sit-in of his life, but there would be many more to come, as well as countless picket lines, protest rallies and hunger strikes.
After graduating from high school, Jim attended college at the University of Connecticut. He then went on to graduate school, earning his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Penn State in 1968.
He could have become a professor of chemistry or a research chemist, but he took a different path. Jim instead gave himself heart and soul to the African American freedom struggle.
He first came to North Carolina as a VISTA worker in 1968. An anti-poverty program created during the administration of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, VISTA was kind of like the Peace Corps, except in the United States.
VISTA’s leaders assigned Jim to Charlotte, but he did not last long. He apparently lost his VISTA funding because he insisted on organizing against the Vietnam War in poor African American communities.
Jim stayed in North Carolina though, and he kept organizing. For half a century, he was there when people needed him, standing by the side of the persecuted and oppressed: migrant and seasonal farm workers, tenants facing eviction, victims of police brutality and anyone else who yearned for justice .
Jim’s deeds are legend, but you will not find much about him in history books. He was a humble, self-effacing man. He never sought out the limelight. He did not crave public recognition or honors. Until the last few years of his life (when he occasionally relented), he almost never agreed to do interviews.
On those rare occasions when he did consent to be interviewed, Jim would rarely say anything about himself. He would discuss the causes for which he fought, yes, but not himself.
I do not think that Jim wanted to be anyone’s hero. I remember him saying once, when I think we were in Belhaven, a small town in Beaufort County, N.C., that he saw himself above all as a teacher. Jim wanted to help bring out the hero or heroine in us all.
Whenever he could, Jim even sidestepped cameras. Spend a day in a library or google his name and you will have to look hard to find more than a couple photographs of him taken over decades of civil rights activism.
But look around while you are in that library or when you are searching the internet. Listen, for instance, to what some of the country’s foremost human rights attorneys have said about Jim.
Listen, for one, to the esteemed civil rights attorney James Ferguson’s words when a reporter from the Charlotte Observer interviewed him on the occasion of Jim receiving the ACLU of North Carolina’s highest honor, the Frank Porter Graham Award, in 2015. (You can find a link to that interview here.)
Ferguson and other human rights attorneys often came to know Jim when they worked on voting rights, prisoners’ rights, police brutality, migrant farm worker, environmental racism and other cases.
I will never forget many years ago, when I had dinner with the late great African American historian John Hope Franklin at my preacher’s home. We somehow got to talking about Jim and his role in the history of the civil rights movement in America.
What struck me most was not what Dr. Franklin knew about Jim’s activism (which was quite a lot) , but the way that he spoke of Jim with a kind of awed reverence usually reserved for saints.
Among scholars and students of history, Jim is best known for three moments in the African American freedom struggle: the Charlotte Three, the Wilmington Ten and the prisoner labor organizing that he did while he was incarcerated on and off from 1972 to 1979.
In 1971 Jim was with the nine men and one woman that became known world-wide as “The Wilmington Ten” when a militant group called the Rights of White People (ROWP) and other white supremacists surrounded and laid siege to the Gregory Congregational Church in downtown Wilmington, N.C. At the time, civil rights activists were using the church as a gathering place.
Jim was not one of the “Ten.” Convicted of burning a grocery store near the church, those ten activists served 10 years in prison before they were exonerated and pardoned in 2012.
By all accounts, Jim was a capable advocate of armed self-defense, and he was a central figure in protecting the lives of the young activists barricaded inside Gregory Congregational Church.
During a three-day siege, the streets of downtown Wilmington echoed with gunshots and fire bombings. There were two deaths, and pitched battles between civil rights activists and the ROWP seemed ceaseless. Jim risked his life repeatedly, and he somehow came through it all unscathed.
That same year Jim was charged and convicted, along with T. J. Reddy and Charles Parker, of burning down a riding stables in Charlotte in 1968. The three defendants came to be known as the “Charlotte Three.”
Jim always maintained his innocence in the case. In later years, historians learned that their conviction was part of a broader campaign by the Nixon Administration to target black radicals in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
In Julius Chamber: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights, historian Joe Mosnier and UNC law professor Rich Rosen address that moment in the civil rights movement’s history.
They write: “The federally orchestrated campaign against black militants reached North Carolina in 1971. The federal government’s efforts, directed largely by North Carolina-based ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] agents, quickly focused upon Benjamin Chavis and James Earle Grant, Jr., two young black activists ATF agents regarded as the two top militant leaders in North Carolina.”
Mosnier and Rosen note that federal agents “employed a wide variety of extralegal means in this campaign, including agents provocateurs, informants, the use of misinformation, and even overt violence.”
The evidence against Jim and his co-defendants in the Charlotte Three case proved so meager and contrived that Amnesty International labeled Jim and his co-defendants “political prisoners.”
Theirs was the first case in which Amnesty International labeled American citizens in U.S. prisons as political prisoners.
In the Charlotte Three case, Jim was given a 25-year sentence. Human rights advocates and protestors around the world continued to speak out against the three young men’s incarceration, however. Finally, Gov. James B. Hunt relented and set them free. The governor granted Jim early parole in 1979.
While in prison, Jim wasted no time. “My feeling was that you try and organize wherever you happen to be,” he told freelance journalist Jonathan Michels in an extraordinary interview that appeared in Scalawag Magazine in 2018.
On entering his cell block, Jim immediately joined other prisoners in organizing the North Carolina Prisoners Labor Union. Among other issues, the union’s supporters pushed for prison officials to hire black and Indian guards, to provide better food, to gain fair compensation for prison labor and to supply literacy materials so that inmates such as Jim, who had gained an education, could teach illiterate prisoners how to read and write.
The organizing of a prisoners’ labor union was a landmark event. Though the U.S. Supreme Court later decreed that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to organize a union, the impact of prisoners taking collective action to improve their living and working conditions was still significant.
The success of those organizing efforts was not insubstantial. According to Michels’ article in Scalawag Magazine, “The North Carolina Prisoners Labor Union collected union cards from more than 5,000 prisoners, roughly half of the state’s total inmate population.”
There were many other important moments in Jim’s career of civil rights activism, even if we limit our gaze for a moment longer only to the 1960s and ’70s.
Jim was, for instance, very active in the draft resistance and anti-war movements during the Vietnam War—in Charlotte, Fayetteville and elsewhere.
In 1969, he was also involved in a confrontation with a Ku Klux Klan ambush during a civil rights march in Concord, N.C. He was active in a landmark hospital workers strike in Charleston, S.C., that year as well.
In 1970 he was a lead organizer in a sanitation workers strike in Charlotte. Around the same time, he was involved in the struggle for school integration in Shelby, Asheville and other parts of Western North Carolina.
At that time when he was working with school desegregation issues, he was the chief organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Western North Carolina. (SCLC was founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker and other civil rights leaders in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957.)
As I combed through the scholarly literature, I also found a few articles and an oral history interview that referred to Jim’s involvement in the civil rights struggle in Oxford, N.C., in 1970. Those are the events chronicled so brilliantly in Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name.
For his involvement in Oxford, Jim was prosecuted as one of the “Raleigh Two,” along with Ben Chavis. Government prosecutors charged the two with assisting in the flight of two other men who had been accused of delivering dynamite to black activists in Oxford.
As you can read in Blood Done Sign My Name, the activists in Oxford had been protesting an all-white jury’s failure to convict a white storekeeper who had carried out an execution-style murder of a black Vietnam veteran named Henry Marrow.
On the charge of aiding the two fugitives, Chavis was found not guilty, but Jim was convicted. Incarcerated at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, he organized prisoners there as well.
While Jim was in prison, his parents and other local supporters held a monthly vigil for him at the Connecticut State House in Hartford, Connecticut.
After he was released on parole in 1979, Jim visited his family and supporters back in Hartford. While there, he agreed to do one of his very rare interviews. In that interview, he told a local newspaper reporter, in a very Jim-like way, that he harbored no bitterness for the years that he had spent behind bars.
He had always known that he would have to pay a price for his civil rights activism, he told the reporter. He then reminded the reporter that many others had paid a much steeper price than he had in the struggle for justice in America. His time in prison, he said, was the least he could do.
* * *
A few days later, Jim returned to North Carolina and began organizing again. He did not stop for the next 40 years. Day after day, night after night, he got into his little yellow, first-generation Honda Civic (or, when it finally gave out after half a million miles, a red pickup truck) and headed wherever people were in trouble and asking for his help.
Tenants facing eviction, communities threatened by toxic wastes, farm workers fighting peonage or even slavery.
Victims of police brutality, factory workers fighting for a living wage, soldiers who were conscientious objectors.
Black communities denied their voting rights, women protesting harassment in the workplace, small-town civil rights activists, such as my friend in Robersonville, whom the Ku Klux Klan was threatening.
For them and others, Jim traveled through the night. And even if he could not always “save the day”—who can, after all? — I will never forget what I saw in the eyes of the people who called him, by which I mean the peace that comes when you know that, despite how bad things look, and the world’s coldness, and its evils, and the odds against you, you are not alone. Things might yet turn out ok. Jim Grant, after all, is coming.