Growing up just five blocks away from Shaw University in downtown Raleigh, David Forbes Sr. said he was humbly aware of his place in the world. He was one of eight children of a local minister, living on South Bloodworth Street in a community that he said always came together to share and share alike.
“My father was a minister; my mother was a God-fearing and godly woman, and we were trained that we were not mistakes, we’re not here by mistake,” Forbes said. “Everybody comes into this world as a creation of God with an obligation to make the world better than what you were born into.”
But that wasn’t his only place. Outside of his neighborhood and throughout the South, “separate but equal” was proving to be anything but. The segregated schools he attended — the Crosby-Garfield School, Washington Junior High and Ligon High School — were excellent, he said. But by the time he arrived on Shaw’s campus as a freshman in 1958, he had seen enough of the world to realize things just weren’t right.
“Before getting out of elementary school, I knew, ‘We hold these things to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,’” Forbes said, citing the Declaration of Independence. “On the one hand, you’re made to memorize this, but what you’re seeing is that it’s just the opposite.”
A natural leader, Forbes was elected freshman class president. In 1960, Ella Baker, Shaw alumna and Southern Christian Leadership Conference founding member and field secretary, came back to campus to organize the first meeting of her new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At 19, Forbes was elected to represent the students in North Carolina.
Practical Lessons in Civil Disobedience
That year, the Greensboro Four, students at North Carolina A&T, had just been arrested for their sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in that city’s downtown. Now, Forbes and his associates at Shaw went about planning similar sit-ins all over the state capital. They started with the Woolworth’s formerly at Cameron Village.
“That started wildfire, here in North Carolina,” he said. “Within a week we at Shaw had started demonstrations.”
Students from St. Augustine’s College, just down the road in Raleigh, as well as some white students from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill joined in. The black students were quite used to going to Woolworth’s and getting books, school supplies and other small items. But, in an interesting legal twist, they became trespassers once they sat down at the segregated lunch counter.
On the initial sit-in at the Cameron Village Woolworth’s, Forbes became the first protester of the movement to be arrested in Raleigh.
“The sheriff and the police chief got together and decided that one way to discourage this picketing and this activity would be to target the leader of the group,” he said. “Don’t arrest all of them, just arrest the leader. And maybe that would spook the rest of them. But we had been trained; we knew better. We were not going to fall for that.”
He was treated just like any other criminal: he had his mug shot taken, was booked and fingerprinted, and finally left to wait in a cell.
But SNCC was well organized, and under Forbes’ leadership at Shaw, the students split into committees. The intelligence committee, the logistics committee, the education committee, the finance committee, and the bond and legal committee made the organization run smoothly, experiencing few hiccups. They anticipated jail time and made arrangements for bond money beforehand.
And when their efforts weren’t quite making it, select adults in the black community stepped in quietly to offer a helping hand.
“James Cofield was the only black bail bondsman in Raleigh at that time and he was married to a professor, Elizabeth Cofield, who eventually became a County Commissioner,” Forbes said. “He agreed to spring all of us from jail, without cost.”
The students were wary about employing too much help from the community, because of what retaliation their allies might face.
“We were empowered by the knowledge that economic retribution could not be meted out on us, because we didn’t have any jobs,” he said with a smile. “College folks are not vulnerable in that sense. And we were careful to be sure that we did not implicate our parents, because our parents were open to retribution.”
Despite what may have seemed like insurmountable barriers — arrests, jail time, scenes of violence across the country — Forbes said that his activists knew from the beginning that their efforts would work.
“Violence would be dealt with with brute force, but no one had ever seen peaceful demonstration, outside of, say, union work,” he said. “We were assured that we were going to win.”
Any demonstration brought the press, and the newspapers soon became a tacit ally. When the protests were covered in the media, word spread and further frazzled the local, segregationist leadership.
In April of 1960, Forbes and other representatives had the opportunity to meet with Martin Luther King Jr.
“It was incredible to have such a young man be as dynamic and charismatic and vocal as he was,” Forbes said. “He was bigger than life, to a 19-year-old.”
Only 10 years older than Forbes, King had already traveled the country speaking and advocating for the rights of oppressed blacks in America. But in personal interaction, Forbes said, he was more like a brother, or a friend.
“He was approachable, easy to talk to, very gentlemanly and gentle, and yet in a moment of oratory, he was a giant,” he said.
Once monthly, members of SNCC would travel to Atlanta and meet up with other representatives from all over the country.
“We sat the feet of Dr. King and Ella Baker, Ralph Abernathy, and Wyatt Walker,” Forbes said. “Big names during that time, and they would not so much as instruct us as hear our stories and bring deeper understanding to what was going on.”
They shared tales of protests, jail time and, where it occurred, violence. Forbes said that while Raleigh was as racist a place as any other city in the south, they were fortunate that in Raleigh “they were politely racist.”
“There would be guys among the hecklers who would have chains and bats, but we discovered that we could use the football team as shields,” he said. “These 200, 300-pound fellows – so those little weaselly hecklers did not dare.”
As his involvement with nonviolent protests and SNCC deepened, word of friends beaten or murdered reached the Shaw students. The assassination of Medgar Evars and murder of Michael Schwerner and others cut deep, especially in the relatively safe haven of Raleigh.
“We were in so much colleagueship with those around the Deep South that the killing of our comrades was the same as us being killed,” he said.
Slowly, but not imperceptibly, the Civil Rights Movement as a whole began to make change. Forbes was a founder of SNCC in 1960. By 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act followed.
And, Forbes said: “The Voting Rights Act, if you jump way ahead, is Barack Obama. When I look at the first African-American President, It makes me ever so proud that those efforts over 50 years ago cashed in.”
A Lifetime of Activism
After graduating in 1962, Forbes became a schoolteacher in Wilson while he waited for his future wife Hazel to finish up at Shaw. Forbes and his young family then moved to Queens, New York. He taught public school and, partially out of a need to bring in a little extra income, he started working on a street team to reach out to inner-city youth. He spent his days not in an office, but walking the streets and hanging out in parks, just being there for kids who needed him.
“Our intent was to try and to be there as an ear and as a shoulder for kids, towards them making good, solid, sound decisions,” he said. “It’s easier to encourage a kid to keep his nose clean than to let him get in trouble and try to yank him back.”
Activism never left his side, so he returned to school to get a master’s of Social Work from Adelphi University on Long Island. Then, he completed his Doctor of Ministry Degree in 2001 from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
He found his way back to Raleigh in the early 1980s. Much had changed, but much had stayed the same. And, he said, the fight for equality still isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. The need to help kids is as great as it ever was in Queens.
“There are many, many young people who are not safe,” he said. “They are victimized by adults, they are victimized by their colleagues, by their friends, they are victimized by gangs, and they are victimized by guns, by violence.”
He helped found the Lost Generation Task Force in 2005, a group that reached out to young men in danger of succumbing to the school-to-prison pipeline. But the financial crisis and recession effectively defunded the group, making his outreach efforts difficult, if not impossible. The organization is on indefinite hiatus for now.
“It was my view that we’re losing our youth,” Forbes said of the name of his organization. “There are more African-American and Latino boys in the prison pipeline than in the college pipeline. And public policy for the last 25, 30 years has favored building prisons to schools.”
He is now a member of the Board of Trustees at Shaw, after retiring last year from his post as minister at Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh. It fittingly brings his story full circle. But in his seventh decade, Forbes continues to see the need for social action to change the status quo.
“The need for civil rights is as real today as it was in my day,” he said, “There aren’t always as many dramatic steps forward. But there’s still the need for civil rights until there is complete equality within the land. Not just for African-Americans but for Latinos, for women, for gays, for all citizens.”