Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 66-72
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"I Played by the Rules, and I Lost"
The Fight for Racial Equality in the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service
Edited By Kieran Taylor
For the better part of twenty years, county extension agent P. E. Bazemore spearheaded a lawsuit charging the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service with discriminating against its African American county agents in hiring, pay, and promotions for years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bazemore received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, but the state of North Carolina resisted settling the case for another four years before making amends to the surviving plaintiffs.
Now retired from the extension service and a city council member in Monroe, the eighty-two year old Bazemore is ambivalent about the ordeal. Nine of the original fifty-one plaintiffs died before the settlement, and the financial and human costs of sustaining the case from its beginning in 1971 were enormous. In this edited excerpt of an interview conducted by the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Program in March 2002, Bazemore remembers the day in 1986 that he heard his case argued before the Supreme Court and the phone call he received two months later informing him of the Court's decision. Bazemore also reflects on the suffering inflicted on him and other African American agents and wonders whether a protest campaign might have been more effective than the legal process.
You're sitting there [in the courtroom]; you're calm. There are others that are coming forward. It's not excitable, but when they said Bazemore versus Friday, I really believe my heart quit right then and there. I don't know why, but for a few seconds nothing about me was normal. I couldn't breathe. There was nothing. A few seconds and it came back. It felt like a long time, but it had to be just a few seconds. It was a frightening experience. It's something that I still haven't been able to adequately describe. You were there at the U.S. Supreme Court. They've already heard a couple of cases, and you're sitting there while that's going on, and then this comes up. Your name is called in that body of people. It was just frightening. That's one experience that nobody forgets. Don't let anybody kid you. Nobody forgets that.
I was home one day, and one of the attorneys who is in Washington called me, and he said, "Mr. Bazemore." I said, "Yeah." He said, "You standing?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, you mind sitting down?" I sat down. He said, "Are you sitting now?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I thought you might"—this was minutes after the announcement was made. He said, "We won." He said, "Three out of the four issues won. We lost the fourth one on a five to four vote." I told him, "I'm glad I'm sitting because if I were not, I'm not sure that I wouldn't go beyond that." Nothing happened to me in association with the cooperative extension service that measured up to that one time. Of course I was out of the service, retired [End Page 67] at that time, but if there is a highlight of anything that I did at the cooperative extension service it was to stay with that suit until we got to the Supreme Court and then with that victory because that helped a lot of black agents to be more focused. We kept stressing the idea that you have to perform. You don't lose sight of that. I think some of them were better agents, better employees as a result of that.
As the leader of the African American agents, Bazemore spent the better part of two decades traveling the state collecting evidence from his colleagues and organizing support for...