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August 1963: James Foushee Recounts A Hunger Strike In Chapel Hill

March 1964: the Holy Week fasters. James Foushee is on the far right. Others, from L to R, are Patrick Cusick, LaVert Taylor and John Dunne.
Copyright Al Amon, From the John Ehle Papers (#4555), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Our series, “August 1963,” continues to look back at North Carolina at the time of the March on Washington. Today we hear from James Foushee. As a teenager in Chapel Hill, he emerged as one of the leaders of the local civil rights movement.

My name is James Foushee. August of 1963, the 28th day, I was at the March on Washington in Washington, D.C.

I think it had a big impact on the movement here. I think it gave the people in Chapel Hill another direction and let them know that they just wasn’t in a corner by themselves. And I think it gave them a boost. Because when we came back, I think everything picked up. I think we had more participation and more understanding about the situation here in Chapel Hill and on the campus, also.

Well, we decided we were gonna have a hunger strike in front of the post office on Franklin Street. It was public ground—that’s why we picked that spot. Because we knew they’d have a hard time removing us because it was owned by the post office, not by the Town of Chapel Hill. We got sleeping blankets, and that’s where we bogged down at—24 hours, around the clock, every day. After a couple days you couldn’t eat nothing no way, because your body done got adjusted to not eating.

That last two or three days, I felt like I was burning up on the inside. So I know it was, you know, it was an ulcer. Bleeding ulcers will make you weak—I’m talking about real weak. But I just refused to leave. It took a long time to go away.

I hoped the hunger strike would change some of the minds of the merchants, get them to thinking that a plate of food and the color of your skin shouldn’t make that much difference. Personally, I just couldn’t understand it and I still don’t understand it to this day. I had some of the times that I wanted to quit, but I said to myself, I said, “No, I can’t. It just ain’t right and I ain’t gonna quit. Giving up is not an option.”

Someone or somebody had to keep the ball going.

James Foushee went to prison that year for his participation in civil rights demonstrations. Chapel Hill never passed an ordinance mandating the integration of its businesses, as the hunger strikers hoped. But in 2009, the town renamed the area in front of the post office “Peace and Justice Plaza,” in honor of its citizens who dedicated their lives to advancing social justice. Foushee still lives in Chapel Hill.

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