Few people in Charlotte these days have heard of Jim Grant. And that’s fine with Jim Grant.
At 78, he’s content to remain in relative tranquility in Wilson, quietly working on the social justice causes that have occupied his life.
It’s a sharp contrast to the turmoil of four decades ago. He was at the center of a drama that made national headlines and drew the interest of writer James Baldwin, activist Angela Davis and Amnesty International.
The case known as the “Charlotte Three” marked the first time Amnesty International declared political prisoners in America. It was a volatile time, when tension between liberal activists and law enforcement was raw and tested Charlotte’s reputation for racial moderation.
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On Saturday, Grant will be honored by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union with its highest tribute, the Frank Porter Graham Award.
The award will recognize a virtual lifetime of working on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.
Grant himself declined to be interviewed, citing an “ironclad” rule not to talk about himself to reporters.
“I’m just a person, a soldier, out here trying to get something done,” he said in a brief phone conversation. “That’s always what it’s been. It’s always been about the struggle. It’s never been about me.”
The ironclad rule apparently extends to friends.
“He wants to keep his private life private,” says fellow activist Don Cavellini. “There’s not too many men like him. He would just as soon go on with his life dedicated to the movement he believes in. Under the radar.”
He was anything but under the radar in 1972. That’s when Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp handed Grant a record 25-year sentence for a 1968 stable burning and gave shorter penalties to his Charlotte Three co-defendants T.J. Reddy and Charles Parker.
All three denied involvement. They and their supporters blamed an overzealous legal system bent on silencing black activists. Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences in 1979.
Despite its notoriety, the case and Grant’s subsequent imprisonment were a relative interlude in a long career of campaigning for civil rights and social justice.
“(Grant) was a true stalwart of the civil rights movement and one of the most important civil rights activists in the state’s history, or certainly in the civil rights era,” says Timothy Tyson, a historian at Duke University.
Long history of activism
A Connecticut native, Grant began his activism in 1949 at age 13 when he joined pickets at a segregated lunch counter in Hartford.
In 1965, he was a student at Penn State, where he would go on to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Two months after that year’s “Bloody Sunday” violence in Selma, Ala., he was among 87 students arrested in Pennsylvania for protesting a paper mill’s plans to open a plant in the Alabama town.
Among the fellow students Grant persuaded to join was Curry First.
“He was very respected, very pro-civil rights,” says First, now a retired civil rights lawyer in Asheville. “He just had a wonderful, gentle leadership skill. He was a kind, soft soul.”
In 1968, Grant came to Charlotte as a volunteer with VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. He picked up where he left off. His role in protesting the war and issues such as school segregation put him in the crosshairs of law enforcement.
A federal agent once called Grant and fellow activist Ben Chavis “two of the top militant leaders in North Carolina.”
Even after going to prison in the stable-burning case, Grant continued organizing – on behalf of fellow prisoners. He joined a lawsuit filed by the Prisoners Labor Union arguing for better pay and prison conditions.
From Vietnam to ‘Moral Monday’
In the 3 1/2 decades since his release, he has continued to work for a catalog of progressive causes, including N.C. Fair Share, Black Workers for Justice, the Human Justice Coalition and more recently, the “Moral Monday” movement.
He continues to crisscross the state to advance the causes he believes in.
Every two weeks, he drives his red Toyota pickup with more than 300,000 miles to the Phillipi Church of Christ in Greenville. There he meets with Don Cavellini and other members of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism.
For Cavellini, Grant was a cause before he was a friend. Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., he wrote letters on behalf of the Charlotte Three and “Wilmington 10.” After he moved to North Carolina three decades ago, he struck up a friendship with the man he’d long admired.
He describes Grant as very private, shunning small talk as well as conveniences such as cellphones and email.
“Jim is so reticent that when it’s time to take a photo, even a group photo, he’s likely to be in the back because he believes in pushing forward those that are less likely to be acknowledged,” Cavellini says. “That’s what he’s about: making other people feel stronger and able to take on the system.”
By all accounts, Grant lives modestly. He’s had paying jobs working for Legal Aid and as an organizer for the Southern Conference Education Fund and the Quakers.
Impact of Charlotte Three
One of Grant’s causes is helping parents and students find remedies to education problems through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He also serves on boards of groups such as the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“He’s been a really fantastic contributor,” says executive director Anita Earls. “He brings this perspective of longtime commitment to civil rights and social justice in the South and he is still engaged in local struggles.”
Charlotte attorney James Ferguson has known Grant since he defended the Charlotte Three four decades ago. He says the case had a lasting impact on his former client.
“I think the case actually made him more committed to do community work, to fight for equal justice,” Ferguson says. “Before that case he was involved in pursuing rights for others than himself. The Charlotte Three experience demonstrated to him that none of us are immune from being affected by the injustices and wrongs that society sometimes visits upon people.”
The Charlotte Three case thrust Jim Grant into the headlines. But it wasn’t the first time.
He made news in 1965 when he was arrested during a protest over a Pennsylvania paper company, which was planning to open a plant in segregated Selma, Ala.