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Phone call leads Durham man to civil rights movement

Chuck Fager's place at one of the civil rights movement's most pivotal moments started with a phone call.

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DURHAM, N.C. — Chuck Fager’s place at one of the civil rights movement’s most pivotal moments started with a phone call.

“Just what you need, another clueless white boy from the north,” he recalled Sunday. “And I also claimed to be a writer.”

During the fall of 1964, Fager reached out to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Atlanta office. Pulled in by the movement’s calls for change and equality, Fager, who was born in Kansas and raised by a Catholic military family on U.S. Air Force bases, wanted to be a part of it.

He was hired by the organization, which at the time was led by Martin Luther King Jr. He was paid $25 a week.

“You could feel things moving,” Fager said. “I was too young to know where they were going."

Fager ended up in Selma, Ala., the starting point of a march in support of equal voting rights. On March 7, 1965, police used billy clubs and tear gas to stop marchers from crossing the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, Ala. King led another march two weeks later, which was successful and helped lead to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The march and subsequent push for equal voting rights is the subject of the movie “Selma,” currently in theaters.

Fager was arrested alongside King and about 250 others during the first march.

In jail, Fager said he and King were among a small group separated from the rest of the jailed protesters.

“We stayed up in that cell ‘til it got to be almost dark, and finally Dr. King took a nap,” he said. “I was too keyed up and hungry.”

Fager, who now lives in Durham, documented his experiences in “Selma 1965: The March That Changed The South.” First published in 1975, Fager recently released a 50th anniversary edition.

Nearly half a century later, Fager believes things have not changed much, citing North Carolina voting reforms passed by Republican lawmakers requiring voters to show identification at the polls and cutting the number of early voting days.

“There’s been a big roll back,” said Fager, who has joined the Moral Monday movement led by the state NAACP. “So in the updated edition (of his book), the happy ending has been diluted. It’s not completely gone, but it’s very much diluted.”


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