Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Wednesday, July 12, 1972

Joe votes on first ever gay rights plank at a national political party convention, Miami 1972

Joe attended the 1972 Democratic National Convention, along with his friend and colleague from Tougaloo College, John Dittmer, as an alternate delegate from Mississippi.

“The Mississippi Loyalist Democrats had booked a bunch of rooms at the convention hotel, and was not able to fill them,” recalled John Dittmer. “They looked for volunteers, and I asked Joe, then at Chapel Hill, if he wanted to go. The two of us went to Miami, and spent three long days and nights observing events.”

At five in the morning on July 12, the next to last day of the convention, with most of the regular Mississippi delegation gone to bed, the two of them finally made it to the floor as credentialed delegates and got to vote on a series of platform amendments too controversial for prime time.

They heard speeches by Jim Foster and Madeline Davis, the only two openly gay delegates that year, and the first ever openly gay speakers at a national political convention. Then they witnessed the introduction of the first ever gay rights plank to be debated by a major political party. Joe (and John as well) voted for it, even as the resolution went down to overwhelming defeat.

“I remember our walking out of the convention hall as the sun was rising, and Joe was not weary, but instead exhilarated by the experience,” said John Dittmer. “If he was not already hooked on a political career before that convention, he certainly was from that early morning on.”