Durham County

Civil rights leader joined the movement as a teenager

Durham high school student and NAACP member Walter Riley, left, moderated the debate between attorney and civil rights activist Floyd McKissick Sr., looking at camera, and black nationalist Malcolm X, right, in Durham in 1963.
Durham high school student and NAACP member Walter Riley, left, moderated the debate between attorney and civil rights activist Floyd McKissick Sr., looking at camera, and black nationalist Malcolm X, right, in Durham in 1963. Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, North Carolina Collection, UNC University Libraries

The Movement.

Not the civil rights movement, just the movement. That's how Walter Riley describes it. That's what he lived through, starting at age 12, when he saw people picketing outside the S.H. Kress department store building that still stands at the corner of Main and Mangum streets.

I'm going to tell you a story about someone who grew up in rural Durham not so long ago. The Jim Crow South isn't far past. Riley is 74 years old, and lived through a time when a white man felt entitled enough to come at him with a noose in a Durham tobacco field.

If you're familiar with the civil rights movement in Durham, you know there were protests at The Carolina Theatre and the old Howard Johnson's. The theater has a permanent exhibit showing the black and white photographs of African-Americans lined up at the main box office, trying to buy admission to the floor seats, not the side door and the balcony seats they were forced to use during segregation. One of the unnamed men in those photos is Riley.

But I'm not talking about the protests you already know about today, or at least not only those. If you wonder if people not already part of a movement become inspired when they see others, Riley proves that true. And he was just a kid when he started. But he lived through worse times than many will ever see.

From tobacco farming to NAACP organizing

Riley grew up in the Bragtown area of Durham County, which was then considered the country. His family on both sides were tenant farmers. His parents stopped farming in 1950, with his father going to work for the city in construction and his mother as a domestic worker.

During segregation, the two county schools for African-Americans were Merrick-Moore and Little River. Riley went to Merrick-Moore, which was grades 1 through 12.

Riley was downtown paying bills for his parents when he came upon the Kress protest and asked what was going on. After that, he read the newspaper to see what other protests were happening in Durham. And each year as he got older, he paid closer attention.

"I got involved in the movement very early, probably '59 or so. I am listed as one of the advisers to the sit-in movement. I met Floyd McKissick [Sr.] in the movement. I was the chair of the NAACP Young Adult Chapter from teenagers up to 30s, some older. One of the most active chapters in the country. We were early early organizers around sit ins and voter-registration campaigns," Riley said in a recent phone interview from his home in California.

When Riley was just 18, he moderated a debate between black nationalist leader Malcolm X and McKissick, then a CORE leader and civil rights attorney. McKissick's son, N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., was a kid then, but remembers that the young NAACP group called themselves NAACP Commandos and some of them wore black jackets with the words on the back. McKissick Jr. also remembers a time that a white mob outside the Durham jail flipped over the 1960 black Ford everyone recognized as his father's car. But his dad had recently sold it, to a white woman.

Segregation of businesses and schools wasn't the only way that Riley witnessed racism and the work of white supremacy.

He was 15 and working in a tobacco field owned by the Mangum family when he got into an argument with the white farmer.

"The farmer went to knot a rope and was coming after me when his young son said 'Daddy, the barn is on fire,'" which is the phrase used for a stage in tobacco curing when smoke rises from the barn, he said.

"He was coming across the field with a rope turning it into a noose, and I would not have been able to win," Riley said. The farmer got distracted by his son and Riley left the field.

"I didn't work in a tobacco field after that," he said.

Riley was born in 1944. That moment in the tobacco field would have been around 1960, five years after the murder of Emmett Till.

Civil rights attorney Walter Riley, who was involved in the civil rights movement starting in his Durham hometown. Photo courtesy Walter Riley

That wasn't the Riley family's last interaction with the Mangum family. His mother worked in their house as a maid.

When she was in a room with white people, she was mostly ignored except for one daywhen she was asked about rumors of a white girl staying at her house, Riley said. She told them the so-called white girl wasn't white, just "fair."

But the girl was white, and married to her son.

Riley had met Candida Lall, now Candida Pugh, the summer of 1962. Pugh had been a Freedom Rider who was arrested and held at Parchman prison in Mississippi in 1961. In 1962, she spent the summer in North Carolina working with the NAACP and CORE, which Riley was in. Riley was also in what is now called the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. They got married in Washington, D.C., as interracial marriage was illegal in North Carolina until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

Riley's Durham activism and involvement in civil rights continued into him becoming a CORE field secretary and eventually into his career as a civil rights attorney. He lives in California now.

Taking his work from the field to the courtroom was influenced by working with McKissick Sr. in the 1960s.

"I worked as a bus driver, auto worker, construction ... but always wanted to be a lawyer because of my work in the movement," Riley said. He said he believes in radical change and saw the greater potential for America because of the movement.

"At the time, it didn’t appear legislation would be on our side, but that our best chance would come from being advocates and working in law to make changes," he said.

So that's just what he did. And it all started here in Durham.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan has been a reporter at The Herald-Sun since 2006. She may be reached at 919-419-6563 or dvaughan@heraldsun.com. Follow her on Twitter at @dawnbvaughan.
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