John (Marsden) Ehle (Jr.) Thomas E. Porter - Essay

Thomas E. Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chapel Hill, N.C., is the home of the most liberal university in the South. In 1963, a colored face in the classroom or cafeteria caused no stir. But on an early April morning of that year, two white students began to picket a segregated restaurant on the main street—and the community caught its breath. For the next two years, there was never total peace of mind for those of us who lived and studied in that pleasant college town.

In The Free Men, John Ehle has documented those years in Chapel Hill, focusing on the experiences of the two students, John Dunne and Pat Cusik, who led the civil rights movement there. He tells the story with remarkable objectivity, neither canonizing the liberals nor castigating the town. (pp. 729-30)

This book adds a note to the history of civil rights movements. Unlike Mississippi and Alabama, Chapel Hill did not explode in violence. The university community and liberals in town government worked very hard to avoid showdown incidents. But the movement there, as reported in The Free Men, dramatizes a mystery: commitment to a cause. It was alarming to find that talk was not enough. Two dedicated students forced an issue—and you were either for them or against them. (p. 730)

Thomas E. Porter, in a review of "The Free Men," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1965; all rights reserved), Vol. 112, No. 20, May 15, 1965, pp. 729-30.