Doing Better at Doing Good

Book shows how Henry Frye, Julius Chambers helped remake system

CorrespondentsSeptember 28, 2013 

While serving at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama back in the summer of 1957, Lieut. Henry Frye kept hearing about a popular preacher who sounded a lot like himself: young, black and ready to fight racial discrimination.

So Frye headed to church one Sunday morning in Montgomery to get a look at Martin Luther King Jr. It was a visit that changed Frye’s life – and ultimately helped transform the civil rights movement in his home state of North Carolina.

Inspired by King’s words, Frye embarked on an extraordinary career of public service that continues today in Greensboro. His accomplishments are captured in “Henry Frye: North Carolina’s First African American Chief Justice,” a new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Howard Covington Jr.

Having completed biographies of a number of prominent figures in our state’s history, Covington notes, “it became exceedingly clear that the shelves were virtually empty of books about the role African Americans played in the life of North Carolina as the state moved from the era of segregation into greater participation in modern society.”

Covington set out to help rectify that imbalance with his new Frye biography, published by McFarland. It chronicles how Frye, starting out as an attorney, became the first black member of the N.C. House of Representatives in 70 years when he won a seat in 1968. He was appointed to the N.C. Supreme Court in 1983 and named chief justice in 1999 – exactly 100 years after the General Assembly approved constitutional amendments designed to bar blacks from public life.

Remaking a system

Frye’s example calls to mind the pioneering work of one of his civil rights contemporaries – Julius Chambers, who died last month in Charlotte. Chambers, also a North Carolina native, served as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Before that, he launched the state’s first integrated law firm and battled segregation on numerous fronts, winning the U.S. Supreme Court case in the early 1970s that allowed forced busing – and prompted the firebombing of his offices.

Covington’s new book provides a fascinating window into how outsiders can influence and ultimately help remake a system that is stacked against them. We hear a lot these days about how “disruptive innovation” is upending longstanding business assumptions and driving positive shifts in technology, medicine, manufacturing and other industries. A closer examination of Frye and Chambers shows them to be disruptive innovators as well who succeeded in helping reshape our society’s social fabric.

The lessons of Frye and Chambers hold broad relevance today as we consider how to shake up the status quo in service of unleashing talent, creating jobs and improving our communities. First, rather than standing on the outside railing against an unjust system, both men affected change by understanding the system and working within it. They both earned law degrees and focused on battling discrimination and expanding opportunity for their clients. The professional grounding and credibility they gained made it possible to build momentum for their cause.

First-class mentors

Second, Frye and Chambers had the self-awareness to know their fundamental strengths. Frye was, as Covington writes, “only a fair politician on the stump when one got down to basics.” His reserved personality and deep love of the law made him a natural instead for the judicial bench. His legislative career allowed him to become a voice for his fellow African Americans while also providing a launching pad to the state Supreme Court. Once there, he became a much-needed advocate for underdogs of all races and views. Chambers, meanwhile, relished the combat of high-profile court cases and public policy issues – making him, over time, a powerful force for taking on not only racial discrimination but also the unemployment, poverty and other socio-economic misfortunes that arise from it.

Finally, both men developed their talents through the guidance and examples of first-class mentors. While in law school, Chambers was hand-picked by Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, as an intern for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Frye was heavily influenced by the examples of King, former Gov. Terry Sanford and other progressive public figures. It’s fitting then, all these years later, that Chambers and Frye become our own guides to creating a better North Carolina.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the Center for Creative Leadership, is author of “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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