The political and racial conflicts that rocked the nation in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t spare North Carolina, with bombings aimed at civil rights leaders and an infamous legal prosecution known as the case of the “Charlotte Three.”
Three men were accused of burning down a stable and killing 14 horses a year after a black UNC Charlotte student, T.J. Reddy, and his friends had been initially refused rides there. Protesters ringed a Charlotte courtroom as Reddy, political activist Jim Grant and UNCC student Charles Parker were sentenced to prison terms in 1972. Reddy drew a 20-year term.
The convictions were upheld on appeal, but doubts rose about their guilt. The Observer reported that the federal government had made secret payments to two key witnesses in the case. Famed author James Baldwin defended the three in a letter to the president and New York Times columnist Tom Wicker grouped it among the nation’s “vengeful miscarriages of justice.”
After the Charlotte City Council asked that the sentences be commuted, Gov. Jim Hunt did so in 1979.
Reddy died March 31 in Charlotte at 73, after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2016, his daughter Jamila Reddy said this week. He had revealed little bitterness about his years in prison, she said, instead preferring to talk about the art, poetry and music that he made for the rest of his days.
“Mostly when he talked about it, he talked about making art,” Jamila Reddy said. “Even in prison he continued to make art. He talked about using ash from cigarettes on paper and pressing flowers. They could put your body behind a cage, but your creative spirit could never be imprisoned.”
Her father, a native of Savannah, Ga., had come to Charlotte from New York in the 1960s to study, first at Johnson C. Smith University and then at UNCC, where he helped found the Black Student Union and the African and Afro-American Studies Department. He was also already an artist and published poet.
Reddy was known as a Social Realist painter whose mixed-media paintings combined acrylics with natural materials including paper, wood and fabric, UNCC said at the time that he was an artist in residence there in 2008-09. The Social Realism movement first sprang up in the 1920s and 1930s as artists sought to call attention to the poor and to challenge government and social systems, New York’s Museum of Modern Art says.
His work, which included murals and public art projects, is displayed widely in the Charlotte area, including the Gantt Center for African American Arts & Culture, the Levine Museum of the New South and UNCC, according to Reddy’s website. The Levine Museum included his work in a 2013 exhibit on the civil rights movement. UNCC hosted a retrospective of his work in 2017.
“No matter how much anyone may dislike my work or myself, they cannot dispute that the work is there. It is done,” Reddy told Qcitymetro.com in a 2017 interview. But he didn’t define himself as solely an artist.
“I am a being whose connection is associated with my ancestry — an African origin,” he told Qcitymetro.com. “My blackness, my African-ness, my color is infused in every pore of my being. The source of the art comes from me.”
Reddy favored African-centric clothes as a way of expressing his pride in his African heritage, Jamila Reddy said. “People would say, ‘oh my brother, where are you from?’ ‘Well, Georgia,’ he would say.“
In public performances, Reddy mixed poetry readings with songs, bits of history and the music he played on an African instrument called a kalimba.
“He informed my life by giving me permission to be my authentic self,” she said. “He encouraged me to follow my creative impulses and to pursue writing and theater. He deeply instilled a sense of worthiness, that we were wise and talented and worthy. We had a strong sense of self that was not dependent on what other people thought of us.”
Reddy is also survived by another daughter, Nia Reddy, and four grandchildren. A third daughter, Chemin, died in August. No immediate memorials are planned.