Joe Herzenberg, 1941-2007 | Editorial | Indy Week

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Joe Herzenberg, 1941-2007

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Joe Herzenberg had a big voice.

Booming across the sidewalk on Franklin Street or over the phone line, he could get your attention with a bit of political news, a funny story, a short lesson in local history. And he was always good for a little gossip.

He didn't hold a conventional job for most of his adulthood, but he chose a giant task for his life's work: to use his voice to fight against injustice and bigotry and fight for civil rights, both in his hometown of Chapel Hill and nationally.

In 1964, he joined the voter-registration drives for African Americans in rural Mississippi—a potentially life-threatening decision for a white, homosexual, liberal, Jewish Yankee back then.

In 1984, he landed squarely in the sights of Jesse Helms' hate machine, when his participation in Jim Hunt's U.S. Senate campaign generated harassment and threats from many sources, including a Chatham County newspaperman who made it his mission to attack Herzenberg and his partner, Lightning Brown.

Closer to home, he became North Carolina's—and some say, the South's—first openly gay elected official. He was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1981 and then won a seat in 1987. He was re-elected in 1991 but stepped down after pleading guilty to failing to pay his state income taxes—a mistake he took responsibility for and overcame, playing a prominent part in local grassroots politics in the years since.

Along the way, Herzenberg shared his voluminous knowledge and razor-sharp insight with anyone who'd take the time to listen. He became a mentor and role model for a new generation of local, young progressive leaders, both gay and straight.

Over nearly four decades in Chapel Hill, he stayed involved in all the good fights (and started a few of his own): advocating for non-discrimination policies that covered sexual orientation, defending the privacy rights of public-housing tenants, opposing anti-panhandling laws, helping draft the state's first tree protections, pushing for creation of municipal greenways and a historic preservation district.

Through it all, Herzenberg maintained a Southern gentility that belied his New Jersey roots. He was a master at the art of the postcard, penning little notes of encouragement or thanks and signing them with a trademark flourish whenever the occasion called for it—which was often. He knew everyone on Franklin Street, not just at businesses like his beloved Pepper's Pizza, but also the folks for whom the street was home.

In a few weeks, we will publish our annual Indy Citizen Awards, a tradition born, like the paper, in 1983. Every November, we honor individuals and groups around the Triangle whose "acts of conscience and sacrifice" make our community better. In 1984, we recognized Joe Herzenberg for speaking out against "political terrorism." Twenty-three years later, we mourn the silencing of his powerful voice.

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