Legacy of hope | Front Porch | Indy Week

Columns » Front Porch

Legacy of hope


Bob Sheldon was the very first person I met when I came to Chapel Hill 16 years ago. My wife Janet and I, fresh back from living in Malawi as Peace Corps Volunteers, were deciding whether to move to Chapel Hill or Asheville. Having been active in peace and justice groups in Greenville, Richmond, D.C. and Los Angeles, I wanted to live in a community in my native state that had a strong progressive base.

So when I pulled into town to check it out, not knowing a soul here, I found a phone book and looked up "Center" and in the Yellow Pages I looked up bookstores. Sure enough, Carrboro had what I was hoping for, a Center for Peace Education. And there was this place called Internationalist Books on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. I went there. It was just what I was looking for--plenty of political books and magazines and bulletin boards filled with flyers for all kinds of music and events.

I was the only customer when I went in and the guy on the phone was talking about wanting to start to live in the store even though it was against zoning regulations. It was Bob. He sounded cool. We moved a couple of weeks later, never having gone to Asheville.

Over the next few months I had some nice conversations with Bob, but we did not really get to know each other. One Saturday I put about $40 worth of books and magazines on the counter only to realize I didn't have cash or my checkbook with me. No problem, Bob said, just pay the next time I came in. What kind of store would do that? Though I did not make it back for a couple of months, he could not have been more gracious.

On the evening of Feb. 21, 1991, I was driving home to Chatham County from a class in nonprofit management at Duke. It was a Thursday and the Internationalist was open late on Thursdays. I was going to stop in but at the last moment decided to go straight home instead.

The next day I learned that Bob had been shot dead in the store the night before as he was closing up. (Though initially many thought the act may have been political, the consensus seems to be that it was a robbery. The case has never been solved.)

Bob Shelton's legacy was in evidence last week when 50 of his friends and admirers came to the store for a celebration of its 25th anniversary and for a vigil for Bob on the 15th anniversary of his death. From those who knew Bob much better than I, there were tears and stories of his strong opinions, his laughter and his love of music. To his great credit, Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy read a proclamation announcing the day as Bob Sheldon Day.

The fact that the Internationalist is strong today as a cooperative speaks so much about this community's progressive strengths, and the hard work of the dedicated volunteers who keep it running despite huge obstacles.

Over the years I have come to see Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where I live now, more as lifestyle enclaves of privilege and extravagance. (Being privileged myself, I ought to know.) They are not nearly as progressive as the rest of North Carolina thinks--or at least not as progressive as I would like them to be. The Center for Peace Education had to shut its doors years ago.

But I and many others are still inspired by the politics of kindness and the dedication to educating and mobilizing people for social justice that we saw in Bob Sheldon. His spirit is reflected in the work of the people who have kept the Internationalist going.

There is hope.

Add a comment