There was no time the world needed Bob Sheldon more than the day he was killed. It was Feb. 21, 1991, a Thursday. The United States was pounding away at Iraq, 34 days into the Persian Gulf air war. Sheldon was spearheading Triangle-area peace protests from Chapel Hill's Internationalist Books, a hotbed of radical thought and action he had founded back in 1981. During the previous month, he had been shown on the evening news explaining why he had fought the draft during the Vietnam War and why he was contesting the Gulf War. As the ground war loomed, he was gearing up for more teach-ins, vigils and marches.
Sheldon spent the afternoon tending to tasks around the store, and made plans to go out with his friend Ken Kaye after closing at 9 p.m. When Kaye arrived at Internationalist, however, he discovered Sheldon's almost lifeless body on the bloodied floor beside the sales counter. Someone had fired a bullet into his head. About 24 hours after the shooting, Sheldon was pronounced dead at UNC Hospital.
"We lost an intellectual force," says Kathy Giuffre, a friend of Sheldon's who worked a block away at The Cave. "We lost someone who stood up for unpopular positions." Dennis Gavin, owner of the Skylight Exchange, then located across the street from the Internationalist, remembers Sheldon as "a voice of radical calmness" that rose above the din of heated political debates. "He had some radical ideas that he was always able to present in a fairly calm way, and he ran his business in a calm way."
Ten years later, the murder remains unsolved and the sense of loss is still sharp for people who knew Sheldon, but the store he founded is going strong. Now named Internationalist Books and Community Center, Sheldon's brainchild is on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, and it is still a focal point for progressive organizing.
"Every community needs a Bob Sheldon, to provide an alternate option for finding out the truth," says Joe Straley, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor and veteran activist. Sheldon, a Colorado native, came to this community in the mid-1970s. He worked first at the Cone Mills plant in Hillsborough and then as a nurse for the UNC-Chapel Hill infirmary. He became a fixture on campus, tabling for the Youth Brigade of the Revolutionary Communist Party, often while wearing a red beret.
In 1981, Sheldon launched Internationalist as a reading room above Henderson Street Bar & Grill. The tiny store was packed with Marxist literature; the phone number was 942-REDS. In 1984, Sheldon set up shop in a bigger space on West Rosemary Street and diversified his inventory. The store was part information clearinghouse, part salon. "I remember how much he just loved to talk about anything with anybody, and how it was a pure delight for him, the joy of conversation," remembers Giuffre. "More people went into Internationalist to talk than to buy books."
Despite his deep passion for politics, friends say, Sheldon wasn't strident, which made his death all the more difficult to understand. "I can hardly believe that someone would have killed him because of his political positions, because he was so soft-spoken about it," Straley says. "Bob Sheldon never shouted, he led by his example." Especially in his later years, Sheldon had "mellowed," his friends say, eschewing the Communist Party for the Green Party and even voting for the occasional liberal Democrat.
Nonetheless, some of Sheldon's friends feared that his years of persistent agitating, along with his TV appearances during Desert Storm, had made him a target. "Somebody just decided this was a Commie peacenik we couldn't afford to have around," a fellow bookseller said at a memorial service. Outside the Internationalist, someone placed a sign that asked, "Was Bob's death the first shot of the ground war?"
Ten years later, the uncertainty remains. Neither the Chapel Hill police nor the State Bureau of Investigation turned up any strong leads about the murderer. It's possible that the killing was nothing more than a botched robbery. The store's cash box was missing after the shooting, but those who knew Bob said he would have given up whatever meager sum was in the box without a struggle.
Sheldon's death reverberated far from the Triangle, as word spread that the counterculture had lost a hero in the South. The Village Voice published an article, "A Death on the Left," that probed the mystery surrounding the murder. In a song called "Chapel Hill," the rock band Sonic Youth sang of Sheldon: "Back in the days when the battles raged, and we thought it was nothing, a bookstore man meets the CIA, and we know." The folk act Indigo Girls memorialized him in their song "Jonas and Ezekiel," placing his death in the context of the turmoil surrounding the Gulf War:
He was an activist with a very short life
I think there's a lesson here--he died without a fight
In the war over land where the world began
Prophecies say it's where the world will end
But there's a tremor growing in our backyard
Fear in our heads, fear in our hearts
Prophets in the graveyard
In an editorial noting Sheldon's legacy, two years after his death, the Chapel Hill Herald likened the Internationalist to "a weed flowering in a pavement crack." Thanks to friends, family and dozens of volunteers, the Internationalist has survived the loss of its founder. In 1994, the store moved to its present location on West Franklin Street, increasing the store's visibility and customer traffic.
"It continues because there's a constituency here based on what he built," Straley says. "You'd be dishonest to say that the constituency is focused around Bob--many people at the store today didn't even have the chance to know him. But the kind of free thinking, the kind of independence of attitudes is what has endured."
Sheldon's commitment to making the store a hub of grassroots activism has also endured. Internationalist staff have pitched in with and coordinated multiple struggles for justice, including the UNC housekeepers campaign, the fight to sever university support of sweatshop labor, efforts to organize farm workers and safeguard the environment, and protests against corporate abuses and U.S. military interventions. Along the way they've sold thousands of books and magazines.
Dawn Peebles, the store's manager for the past year, says that Sheldon's death still casts a long shadow, even for those who, like her, never met him. She is among those who have concluded that Sheldon was likely assassinated because of his beliefs and his outspokenness. "I get the general idea that it had to be politically motivated, knowing about the history of these parts," she says. "But our support base has grown so much that we often times forget about that--because there are so many people now that are involved, effected by and supportive of the store."
Peebles says she believes Sheldon would be pleased with how the store has evolved, were he able to see it today. The "anti-corporate dominance movement," as she calls it, is a logical extension of the multifaceted organizing Sheldon did. "I think that he would feel rewarded, because he had this vision 20 years ago, and only recently, only in the past couple of years, has this vision spread from the international level into the living rooms of every American. People like him paved the way."
The sadness surrounding the anniversary of Sheldon's death will be tempered by a celebration marking the survival of the store and its mission. The Internationalist staff will host a remembrance at Panzanella restaurant in Carrboro on Monday, Feb. 26, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friends and former staff members will share memories of Sheldon, and filmmaker Braxton Hood will debut a documentary about the Internationalist.