Bob Sheldon was a Chapel Hill, North Carolina activist. He was a political activist; nurse; owner of Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill, N.C. Sheldon was murdered in the store on February 21, 1991. He was a draft resister in 1968; visited China in the 1970s, worked with the Communist Workers Party in the 1970s and the Green Party USA in the 1980s; did union organizing at Cone Mills Textile plant in the 1970s; and worked on Palestine issues in the 1980s.
"Every community needs a Bob Sheldon, to provide an alternate option for finding out the truth," says Joe Straley, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor and veteran activist. Sheldon, a Colorado native, came to this community in the mid-1970s. He worked first at the Cone Mills plant in Hillsborough and then as a nurse for the UNC-Chapel Hill infirmary. He became a fixture on campus, tabling for the Youth Brigade of the Revolutionary Communist Party, often while wearing a red beret.
In 1981, Sheldon launched Internationalist Books as a reading room above Henderson Street Bar & Grill. The tiny store was packed with Marxist literature; the phone number was 942-REDS. In 1984, Sheldon set up shop in a bigger space on West Rosemary Street and diversified his inventory. The store was part information clearinghouse, part salon. "I remember how much he just loved to talk about anything with anybody, and how it was a pure delight for him, the joy of conversation," remembers Giuffre. "More people went into Internationalist to talk than to buy books."
Despite his deep passion for politics, friends say, Sheldon wasn't strident, which made his death all the more difficult to understand. "I can hardly believe that someone would have killed him because of his political positions, because he was so soft-spoken about it," Straley says. "Bob Sheldon never shouted, he led by his example." Especially in his later years, Sheldon had "mellowed," his friends say, eschewing the Communist Party for the Green Party and even voting for the occasional liberal Democrat.
Nonetheless, some of Sheldon's friends feared that his years of persistent agitating, along with his TV appearances during Desert Storm, had made him a target. "Somebody just decided this was a Commie peacenik we couldn't afford to have around," a fellow bookseller said at a memorial service. Outside the Internationalist, someone placed a sign that asked, "Was Bob's death the first shot of the ground war?"
Ten years later, the uncertainty remains. Neither the Chapel Hill police nor the State Bureau of Investigation turned up any strong leads about the murderer. It's possible that the killing was nothing more than a botched robbery. The store's cash box was missing after the shooting, but those who knew Bob said he would have given up whatever meager sum was in the box without a struggle.
Sheldon's death reverberated far from the Triangle, as word spread that the counterculture had lost a hero in the South. The Village Voice published an article, "A Death on the Left," that probed the mystery surrounding the murder. In a song called "Chapel Hill," the rock band Sonic Youth sang of Sheldon: "Back in the days when the battles raged, and we thought it was nothing, a bookstore man meets the CIA, and we know." The folk act Indigo Girls memorialized him in their song "Jonas and Ezekiel," placing his death in the context of the turmoil surrounding the Gulf War:
"There was no time the world needed Bob Sheldon more than the day he was killed. It was Feb. 21, 1991, a Thursday. The United States was pounding away at Iraq, 34 days into the Persian Gulf air war. Sheldon was spearheading Triangle-area peace protests from Chapel Hill's Internationalist Books, a hotbed of radical thought and action he had founded back in 1981. During the previous month, he had been shown on the evening news explaining why he had fought the draft during the Vietnam War and why he was contesting the Gulf War. As the ground war loomed, he was gearing up for more teach-ins, vigils and marches.
Sheldon spent the afternoon tending to tasks around the store, and made plans to go out with his friend Ken Kaye after closing at 9 p.m. When Kaye arrived at Internationalist, however, he discovered Sheldon's almost lifeless body on the bloodied floor beside the sales counter. Someone had fired a bullet into his head. About 24 hours after the shooting, Sheldon was pronounced dead at UNC Hospital.
"We lost an intellectual force," says Kathy Giuffre, a friend of Sheldon's who worked a block away at The Cave. "We lost someone who stood up for unpopular positions." Dennis Gavin, owner of the Skylight Exchange, then located across the street from the Internationalist, remembers Sheldon as "a voice of radical calmness" that rose above the din of heated political debates. "He had some radical ideas that he was always able to present in a fairly calm way, and he ran his business in a calm way.""
(Note from 2014 - On the second anniversary of Bob's death, Matt Stewart invited me to come join the vigil held from 7-8 pm in front of Internationalist Books' new Franklin Street store. I think Matt was the Internationalist co-manager at the time, or he might have recently stepped down from that position. It was a moving, somber occasion, and I felt a lot of love for Bob in the hearts of the folks who gathered on Franklin Street that evening.
It was the fall of '89 when I began swinging through Internationalist Books at its 408 West Rosemary location. My excellent freshman history professor Don Reid had instructed students in his HIST 140 - World History Since 1945 class (where Alvis Dunn was my TA and doing a great job helping Professor Reid awaken our young, naive minds to the hidden history of U.S. imperialism) to buy their textbooks from the store. So Internationalist Books was the whole reason I first set foot on Rosemary Street, two doors down from where in later years I would spend many a night tending shop myself at the Lost City.
I can't remember anything specific about my interactions with Bob during the year and a half before he was killed, except that he struck me as a super cool guy. The few times I saw him in the store, he was usually engrossed in lively conversation, either with another customer or talking on the phone. But he was always friendly and welcoming towards everyone, and I know we chatted from time to time.
According to a story I heard a few years ago, when Amiri Baraka came to UNC to speak sometime during this era, and a student was put in charge of chaperoning him around town, Internationalist was the only place Baraka wanted to visit. And FBI types in dark suits and sunglasses followed the two of them into the store and kept a close watch on every word Baraka exchanged with Bob Sheldon. If Internationalist Books hadn't been on the power structure's radar before then, it sure was thereafter.)