Former East Spencer chief honored

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 31, 2011

EAST SPENCER — John L. Rustin Sr., man about town.
It’s difficult for anyone to remember when “John L.” — you have to say it as one name — wasn’t firing up ovens at the brick yard, patrolling East Spencer’s streets as a police officer, meeting with citizens as a mayor or alderman, working the polls as a precinct official or speaking to North Rowan school committees as an advisor.
Fast-talking John L. was the man who stood tall, was always on alert, never backed down, made the tough decisions and respected people. That’s according to him.
“Every day of my life, I run into someone thanking me for helping them out,” Rustin says. “I’m a people person. I have good credibility.”
Even by his own admission, the 85-year-old Rustin is slowing down. He relies on a cane sometimes to help him with the sciatica in his leg. He blames it from carrying a gun on his hip all those years.
Rustin watches television more than he would like to admit, but he still attends a lot of public meetings and most of the happenings at church.
Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church has decided to honor him Feb. 13 with a “John L. Rustin Day,” in celebration of a man who found — in this place he always considered home — a resolve to rise above discrimination, resurrect himself from political setbacks and still love his town.
“He’s been a great community person,” East Spencer resident and fellow church member Essie Foxx says.
Rustin served as a role model for young people, young men especially, Foxx adds, “and as a police chief I think he was the best.”
Rustin remembers when East Spencer’s white mayor first endorsed him to become a part-time police officer in 1952. It wasn’t based on any law enforcement training Rustin had at the time — he had none. Those decisions came from a black person’s character and standing in the community, Rustin says.
And something else.
“I matched the personality of East Spencer,” he says.
Started as a part-timer
When he became a part-time officer, Rustin already was working full-time at Isenhour Brick, where he would eventually rise to a supervisor’s level and put in more than 31 years.
Covering nights and weekends early on, he received a part-time officer’s pay, which wasn’t much, and a fee for each arrest made and warrant served.
Rustin had no authority to arrest white people, so he would have to detain those suspects until the white police chief arrived and decided what to do. Rustin kept his pride, though he acknowledged once that some blacks called him an Uncle Tom for not arresting whites. Until he could.
Rustin didn’t have a police radio then either, and he had to use his own car. The only way for him to communicate with the Sheriff’s Department dispatcher was through the help of citizens. Some residents even signaled him with their porch lights.
By 1974, as evidence that East Spencer and the times were both changing, Rustin became police chief. He believes he was the first black police chief in North Carolina, though it has never been proved one way or the other.
Taking the job, he took a $2,000 cut in pay from his position at the brick yard.
By then, he had received formal law enforcement training at Rowan Technical College and also an associate degree in industrial management through classes he took while at Isenhour Brick.
His days as both an officer and chief — he served 13 years in that position — were not without challenges, controversy and disappointments.
There were white citizens who never accepted black officers, he says, adding that he had “four redneck families,” in particular.
“You know, you have some people who don’t want to give up (their prejudices),” Rustin says.
In November 1984, citizens came to the Board of Aldermen with complaints that Rustin was aiding and abetting law breakers, responding slowly to emergency calls and spreading gossip. A week later, another group of citizens visited the town board in his support and defense.
After a six-week investigation by a committee of aldermen, a split board gave Rustin a written reprimand for negligence. Rustin never agreed with the censure but accepted the paper in his personnel file and moved on.
A suspension without pay came in 1987 — his last year as chief — when aldermen said he had failed to arrange for the moving of a truck that was obstructing motorists’ view.
Stroke brings change
On May 19, 1987, he suffered a light stroke. He rehabilitated, retired in July of the same year and almost immediately ran for mayor — losing, then winning in 1989, then losing again in 1991.
The comeback kid would return to serve several terms, not always consecutive, on the East Spencer Board of Aldermen.
Rustin ran as the only black candidate for Rowan County sheriff in 1986 and the only black candidate for county commissioner in 1998. He lost both times.
Through it all, Rustin says he was always an incorruptible public servant, always willing to help. Some people have been jealous of that, he adds.
“If anybody had a problem, they’d say ‘Call John L.’” former East Spencer Town Clerk Barbara Mallett says. “He always had East Spencer at heart, and he still does.”
Born in East Spencer, Rustin moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 6 to live with a cousin, Virginia Childress. His mother died in 1932 at the age of 39. His father, who people knew as “Big Red Rustin” — worked in the storehouse at Spencer Shops and did what he could to look after Rustin’s five brothers and two sisters.
Rustin rode the train home ever summer to visit his family in East Spencer. But he likes to say he was educated in Washington, where he was a 10-year-old captain of the school patrol, delivered the Washington Daily News and was a self-described “handy boy” for the Sanitary Grocery Store at 6th and L streets.
“I was a hustler,” he says. But Rustin always longed to return to North Carolina, coming back to East Spencer for good as a 17-year-old. “I never lost a love for it,” he says.
Rustin married when he was 20, secured his job at the brick yard in 1943 and was drafted in the Army, serving as a mail clerk in the Philippines during 1946-47.
The brick yard kept his job for him while he was gone.
Rustin never became a smoker or drinker. The one time he tried a drink, “I couldn’t stand it — that wouldn’t be me,” he says.
He and his wife, Ella, had seven children, but they divorced in 1988.
Rustin looks back on his early days as a police officer in East Spencer as helping African-Americans and his town to progress. “All that time,” he says, “people would call me — and not the chief — because I would treat you like somebody.”
He never shot that gun on his hip. He broke his hand once when he got into a scuffle at a Halloween party at Dunbar High in 1956. Over his police career, he recalls 14 murders — all solved, he adds.
Previous honors
Numerous times, Rustin has been recognized and honored for his contributions, much like his church is doing in February. Dunbar High School — a school he never attended — dedicated its yearbook to him in 1965.
At its 3 p.m. event Feb. 13, Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion hopes to establish an endowment fund in his name, to provide for future scholarships.
In 1998, the town honored him for his 45 years of service to East Spencer in capacities as police officer, chief, mayor and alderman.
“In each one of those positions, he held his ground and stood for his beloved East Spencer,” says Mallett, the former town clerk.
The “L” in John L. stands for “Lee,” a middle name Rustin has never really liked. It could just as easily stand for “Lifetime” — a lifetime Rustin has spent serving East Spencer.
He has always been a man about his town.