Former NC Governor reflects on the legacy of Marion native, Judge Richard Erwin.
By Joe Elliott
I interviewed former NC Governor James B. Hunt about the late federal judge and Marion native Richard C. Erwin (1923-2006). Born into a deeply racially-segregated society, Erwin lost his father when he was nine years old, forcing him to go to work to help support his family. He continued with his schooling, even while working, and after graduation from all-black Hudgins High School, he served three years in the U.S. Army (where he achieved the rank of First Sergeant, QMC).
In 1951 he received his law degree from Howard University School of Law, and practiced law in Winston-Salem the next 27 years (also serving in the General Assembly in 1974 and 1976. In 1978 he was appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, becoming the first North Carolina-born African American to hold that high post.
Two years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench, again making him the first person of color to hold such a position from the state. He assumed senior status on the court in1992.
The interview with the governor included questions about Hunt’s own early evolving perspective on race and society.
Joe Elliott: First of all, thank you, Governor, for speaking with me about Judge Erwin. Can you please tell me when the two of you first met?
James B. Hunt: Joe, as I recall, it was while we were serving together on the North Carolina State Board of Education. However, I most clearly recall when he was appointed to the state and federal bench. His nomination to the federal court was made in August of 1980. What’s significant to remember is that he became the first African American Court of Appeals judge in the history of our state. I appointed him early that year (1978), just a little while before the state Democratic primary.
Another person, a Caucasian, who assumed, I think, that an African American candidate would not run strongly in North Carolina, filed to run against him. And I did something I had never done up to that point. I endorsed a Democratic candidate in the primary. I endorsed Judge Richard Erwin. I did this because he was the best qualified, and I believed strongly he should remain on the State Court of Appeals. In turn, I campaigned very heavily for him and put my entire political organization behind him. He won with more than 60% of the popular vote.
He was one of the first blacks to be elected to state-wide political office in North Carolina in the 20th century.
JE: His victory in the general election must have been very gratifying for you.
JH: Well, the gratifying thing to me was that the state did the right thing. The state had not always done the right thing in these cases, you understand. In making my decision I considered the potential field of candidates very carefully beforehand and chose him because I knew he was the best man for the job.
JE: I think we forget today just how important his win was. It was a huge step forward for our state in terms of political equality, wasn’t it?
JH: Yes, it was huge. Joe, the thing to remember is that not only did he get elected by the people [as opposed to being appointed] but the fact that so many people throughout the state, both black and white, helped him succeed. Had we not worked as hard as we did, he might still have lost, however. We had a lot of people in the state who still had a lot of biases against the idea of electing a black man to high public office.
But I was very proud to do what I could because I knew how good he was. I was also proud that, once elected, he continued to serve with great dignity and success.
JE: I read Judge Erwin was forced to go to work when he was only nine years old to help support his family. Despite this, he continued with his education, eventually graduating from college and law school. I know that as a young man you worked on your father’s farm and worked your way through college. I’m wondering if you think such early experiences helped shape your (and his) perspective, in terms of what you felt was important later.
JH: Yes, I think so, in a couple of ways. I think there were factors in our upbringing that affected both of us. One was working with people on a farm, in a mill, wherever it might be. You worked alongside people and respected them for their hard work. You also found out what hard work was like, and you never, never throughout your life looked down on “working people.” Because you’d been one yourself, you’d gotten to know them, they were your friends.
The second thing I would say is this, when you come up that way, as both of us did, you really appreciated the value of getting an education. You were thrilled to get the chance to go to school and get an education. Also, you saw what it could do in terms of opening doors for you and helping you become all that you wanted to be in life. You could in turn become a person who was a value to your community, and maybe to the state at large. You valued education more than some might, especially those born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
I think it’s actually a disadvantage to have everything given to you when you are young. We all have to be careful about that these days when we try to give our children or grandchildren every advantage.
JE: I’ve read that Judge Erwin’s mother had the most profound influence on his early development. It’s said that she had hoped he might become a missionary bishop in the Methodist Church. “I did not take too well to becoming a bishop,” he is quoted as saying, “but I did become a missionary in the field of law.” What do you imagine he meant by that?
JH: Well, Joe, I think he meant there were souls to be saved and lessons to be taught and examples (in the court of justice) to be set. I think his momma was very proud of him.
JE: Your biographer Gary Pierce has written that you yourself too were driven very early by a “mission.” There are some similarities in the mission that Judge Erwin carried with him into life and the ones that drove you. Would you agree?
JH: I’d be honored if that was said. I think that has to do about caring about people. Gary used to always ask, “Why did you do it?” Not what did you do—he already knew that—but why. He would ask that again and again of me. Well, you did it because you felt like that’s what God wanted you to do. That you’re supposed to love people, care about them, and help them. And that means that, in your life, you want to help others become the best they can be. That also means helping them get a good education, and, in my role as governor, it meant working to create good jobs.
While Richard and I never talked religion, I knew how committed he was to helping people, especially people who needed help the most. And I knew he would fight for what he knew was right, fight for the right to give people a chance at a decent life. I think we both held those ideals in common.
JE: Is it fair to say that your determination to help others, like Judge Erwin’s, was perhaps originally grounded in your spiritual faith?
JH: Yes, absolutely.
JE: Again, quoting from Gary Pierce, he has said that it really wasn’t until you got to college that your mature view of racial issues formed. What happened in college that had such an impact on you?
JH: I think I learned from my teachers, my professors about the evils of segregation and discrimination. I learned about it in Africa when I was there. I learned about it in North Carolina and America.
Your teachers have a way of pushing you to think and analyze. And if you’re a fair minded person, you believe God created us all equal and loved us all. And you knew that African Americans, and today, Hispanics, were human beings like everyone else, and that God loved them like He loves you. You couldn’t therefore justify acts of unkindness and mistreatment. It didn’t square with everything else you knew.
When I came to that conclusion, I realized social segregation, this hate and mistreatment of people simply because of their race, just would not do. It was wrong in God’s eyes and it was wrong for me to do it. And beyond that, I realized if a person felt that way, then he had a responsibility to help change it for the better.
JE: After graduating from college, you spent some time in Nepal. Do you think that experience had any impact on your thinking about race and society?
JH: Yes, I would say so. They (the people of Nepal) had a different religion but God cared about them all. I can’t recall if Gary put this in his book, but I clearly remember the first night I was trekking into the high Himalayas. I had left the town which was near the birthplace of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) and we climbed into the mountains and we didn’t get to our destination until late at night.
In many of those routes there was no road, so you had to follow the river. You’d go down into one gorge and you’d come up higher, then back down into another gorge and back up. As I was passing a little village that night, I heard a baby cry out. The thought hit me at that moment that God loves that child as much as he loves my own children. We are all created equal and we must treat each other equally.
JE: Do you see issues you tackled as governor as being part of a larger historical continuum in the South toward greater equality for all?
JH: Perhaps so. But just let me say that I see important contributions having been made on both sides of the political spectrum. My great friend, former Gov. Jim Holshouser, for example, was deeply committed to equality and opportunity. So many people have been working toward these things over the years, and the work must continue. I believe we’ll find a way to get beyond our current scrapping and battling, and do what is right. I have great faith in the people of North Carolina.
JE: In your opinion, what is Judge Erwin’s most lasting legacy?
JH: I think the example of his life, a life of service. I might add, a life of caring serving. A life of hard work and never quitting or giving up or giving in. Richard Ervin was one of the hardest-working, most determined men I ever worked with. I would add his belief, lived by the example of his own life, of people simply getting along and working together to accomplish things.
Though he probably felt more than his share of social and personal slights in life, he never allowed these things to make him bitter. He continued to care and to love and to serve, and be an example of the kind of human being we all ought to strive to be.