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.

Tuesday, November 30, 1993

Lowenstein biography raises a flap

The News & Observer, Nov. 30, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- Allard Lowenstein has been dead 13 years -- murdered by a former protege at 51 -- but that hasn't stopped people from talking about the man who earned a national reputation as a liberal hero.

A controversial new book based on the intensely personal letters and diaries of Lowenstein is reviving interest in the political activist who got his start in Chapel Hill.

In some cases, "Never Stop Running: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle to Save American Liberalism," by Dr. William Chafe, is generating silence.

Some of Lowenstein's closest local friends, including those who feature prominently in the book, say they don't want to discuss it. Others say the tormented man the book describes is not the Lowenstein they knew.

One reason for the uneasiness greeting the book is that Chafe probes aspects of Lowenstein's character that some colleagues find troubling. He contends Lowenstein was unhappy with his looks, terribly uneasy about being Jewish -- and attracted to men.


Lowenstein, a New Yorker, served only one term in Congress but earned a national reputation for organizing students for liberal causes. He created a liberal legacy that influenced major political figures, starting with Eleanor Roosevelt in the '40s and continuing today.

"Five United States senators can directly trace their political roots to Lowenstein," Chafe said. "The Clinton administration is full of his children -- his political children."

Townspeople in Chapel Hill vividly recall Lowenstein's presence on the UNC campus, beginning in 1945. His charisma, frenetic energy and championing of the underdog quickly made him a major figure on campus and a favorite of the president of the university, Frank Porter Graham.


Lowenstein tried to integrate the campus and, despite his ambivalence about his heritage, challenged anti-Semitism at UNC. By the 1950s, he was fighting apartheid in South Africa. In the 1960s, he mobilized young people to fight segregation and join the "Mississippi Freedom Train." He orchestrated the "Dump Johnson" campaign on college campuses to protest the Vietnam War.

Chafe's book reinforces much of the local image of Lowenstein, but contends that an unhappy personal life fueled Lowenstein's commitment to political causes.

Lowenstein proposed to more than one woman before he married a wealthy Protestant and fathered three children. But Chafe asserts that Lowenstein was, among other things, bisexual, in an era when same-sex relationships were even less accepted than they are today.

"The connection between the personal and the political is compelling," said Chafe, the chairman of the history department at Duke University. "Lowenstein's political activism is a way of identifying with causes that are so pure that by virtue of identification with them all doubts are erased about his own character or stature."

Chafe drew heavily on interviews, as well as Lowenstein's extensive diaries and personal letters now cataloged in the Southern Historical Collection in UNC-CH's Wilson Library.

One friend quoted in his book recalls in a letter: "In a crowd he laughs and clowns as if he never had a care or a heartache, but alone, or with some one person, he reveals a strange and sad strain of melancholy." In other letters, both men and women expressed their fondness for Lowenstein.

"He attracted intense feelings of hatred and adoration," Chafe said.

Lowenstein was murdered in 1980 by Dennis Sweeney, a former disciple from Stanford University whose delusions and involvement with drugs are explored in the book.

Joe Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member who is gay, praised the book and Chafe.

"I think he handles the sex part with great sensitivity and does Al Lowenstein justice," said Herzenberg, who met Lowenstein in the 1970s when the activist spoke on campus and attracted great crowds.

"I really regret that when I mentioned his name to two students now, they really had no idea who he was."


Although Lowenstein graduated from UNC in 1949, he maintained close ties to Chapel Hill all his life, and even returned briefly to do graduate work.

It was one of the places -- along with Yale, where he graduated from law school, and Stanford, where he served briefly as an administrator -- from which he recruited students for his various political activities.

Lowenstein named his first son after Graham, the noted Southern liberal who became Lowenstein's mentor. Lowenstein's daughter, Katherine, graduated from UNC-CH in May.

"I always thought of him as a family man," said Dr. John Lambert Jr., an emeritus social studies professor who taught with Lowenstein during Lowenstein's brief tenure as a lecturer at N.C. State University.

"I will simply say in the years we knew him I never knew the problems he had with his Jewishness or incipient homosexuality," said Lambert, who plans to read the book. "He never seemed obsessed by anything except trying to do justice to any number of causes."

Friday, November 5, 1993

Not gone, and not forgotten

The News & Observer, page B1, Nov. 5, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- In the 1991 Town Council race, Joe Herzenberg came in first with 4,803 votes. On Tuesday, he finished last with 202 votes.

But Herzenberg isn't complaining. His name wasn't even on the ballot this time. The former council member even got four votes for mayor.

"I'm delighted. I'm honored," Herzenberg said Thursday. He then chuckled and said: "I didn't want to be mayor."

Herzenberg stepped down from the council in September to avoid a recall election by voters peeved about his failure to pay state taxes. An eight-year council veteran, he remained a popular figure in town despite his tax troubles. Many speculated that his chances were good for winning a write-in campaign.

A few days after his resignation, however, Herzenberg surprised everyone by declaring that he would not wage a write-in campaign.

The former council member said Thursday that he was impressed with the number of votes he got.

"That's a lot of write-in votes for a campaign like this," he said. "I didn't discourage or encourage people."

During election week, signs of Herzenberg's support were popping up all over town -- literally.

At Pepper's Pizza, one of Herzenberg's favorite Franklin Street hangouts, a flier on the wall gave detailed instructions on how to cast a write-in vote for him.

When he left his home early Tuesday, there were four candidates' signs in his yard. When he returned that night, a fifth sign had appeared -- one for him. He still hasn't figured out who planted it. But he's grateful.

Will it convince him to run again sometime in the future?

"It certainly is inspiring," he said.

Vote Joe Herzenberg yard sign, 1991. Thanks to Mark Donahue and his talented co-workers at Replacements, Ltd. for restoring this yard sign to its original glory!