GARNER — In 1963, a Highway Patrol officer pulled David Forbes over on his way to his hometown of Raleigh from Wilson, where he worked. The officer asked him what he did in Wilson; Forbes said he worked at a school.
The highway patrolman, told Forbes he was traveling 39 mph in a 35-mph zone. Then he wrote him a ticket for 69 in a 35 because of his race.
Society today treats Forbes differently. On Oct. 7, Forbes, now a Garner resident, sociologist, teacher, preacher and civil rights leader, was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame.
The Monday night ceremony at the Raleigh Convention Center honored eight individuals and two organizations. They became part of more than 100 people and groups praised for contributions to Raleigh since the Hall’s inception in 2005.
“It was a wonderful experience,” David Forbes said of the night.
By the time that officer pulled over the young teacher fresh out of college, Forbes had already accomplished much. He started the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University, was arrested in a famous Raleigh sit-in and had worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr.
He later earned two doctorates – one in sociology from the University of Virginia, the other in ministry from United Theological Seminary – and has had multiple careers and passions. But all of his work centered around expanding faith, education and equality.
“I am older than David, except I always said I wanted to be like him when I grow up,” said his brother James, who is a pastor in New York City.
“He did not take well to anything that put down people. He believed that no matter what your situation you deserved to be respected.”
Forbes had hoped – once Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954 – that he might attend desegregated schools. He graduated high school and started at Shaw in 1958, more than a decade too early for desegregation to reach North Carolina. The slow pace frustrated him.
At Shaw he started SNCC and became student body president. Fellow student Mack Sowell – who spent nearly four decades working at Shaw and is president of the Raleigh Alumni chapter – said he was immediately impressed by Forbes’ leadership. He said some of his freshmen classmates were complaining about the state of the library in 1960.
“He asked, ‘Have you read all the books in the library?’ We said no. And that ended the discussion,” said Sowell, who is still friends with Forbes.
“He is a person who can dissect an issue without having his way. He’s a person who can give you his point of view, but at the same time he’s a listener. Never pushy, always patient and respectful.”
That measured demeanor meshed with what James Forbes termed an “edge” where David would say what he thought and insisted people around him stand up for themselves. The bold-yet-thoughtfully-restrained mix fit the civil rights movement’s requirements perfectly.
The February 1960 sit-in at the Woolworths in Cameron Village constituted his best-known effort; at 19 he was arrested for trespassing along with more than 40 other students demonstrating against segregated lunch counters. Forbes, as a leader, was the first to be arrested.
Forbes would meet and train with King that year. He said that, though impressed with the man at the time just over 10 years his senior, he was not in awe; that would come later.
“At that time I was 19, 20. At that age you’re not spooked by anything. I now have great respect for what was happening,” Forbes said.
The nonviolent methodology of protest stuck with him, including three years later when that officer pulled him over. That stemmed both from a belief in efficacy and self-preservation.
“I was taught not to provoke law enforcement,” Forbes said. “Officers in that time had the option of shooting you right there on the spot.”
He went to college already heavily influenced. His parents had built a strong reputation in the community despite modest means, and he further learned about the importance of education and fair play from teachers and his church.
Family remains important to Forbes today; all five of his living siblings attended the event Monday, as did six of nine grandchildren.
“We’re a very close family, and I enjoy that,” Forbes said. “I am a professional spoiler of grandchildren.”
His brother James credited Forbes as the quintessential family man keeping that closeness alive.
“His relationship to (his late wife) Hazel was a model to all of us of husband-wife cooperation,” James said. “David is the one that helped hold our family together, especially after my mother passed and after my father passed ... He is the magnet to maintain strong family ties.”
Professional to spiritual
After teaching at Wilson’s Elvie Street Elementary for two years, he did the same in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two more. He has worked in the domestic Peace Corps, at Howard University, and for the city of Washington, D.C., under Mayor Walter Washington.
He, in his words, “continued my U-turn southward” as dean of admissions at the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was during the last two of his 12 years there that he began his first pastorship, a new career path that stuck. (Not that he’s left academia entirely; the Shaw trustee currently leads the search committee seeking a replacement for retiring university president Dorothy Yancy.)
He moved back to Raleigh in 1983 to be the pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church. In 1990, after a disagreement over organizational structure with the deacons, hemoved on to be the first pastor at newly formed Christian Faith Baptist Church, the same year he moved to Garner.
Forbes has since retired as a pastor but continues to preach. He finds himself in high demand as a speaker in North Carolina and beyond. He has settled down some and is working on developing his skills in golf, a sport he picked up late in life. But he also visits the sick and the shut-in, and tries to promote other issues related to compassion and equality.
“He is a person who has been consistently dedicated to issues of justice,” James Forbes said, naming issues such as a concern for incarceration rates of black people.
Forbes will be the first to call the difference between today and five or six decades ago “night and day,” but he also says much work remains to be done to undo the stubborn legacies of codified inequality.
“(Bigotry) finds its way in impacting social policy and promoting inequality. I think we have a perennial and ongoing struggle to make the American experiment work: Liberty and justice for all,” Forbes said. “The founding fathers intended us to be the best form of government in the world. We’re on the way, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Sowell, his old college friend, said it’s time, though, for the next generation to take the reins, and called Forbes willing and able to help.
“He has a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of information,” Sowell said. “It’s time for them to take the torch, run with it, and do good things.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland