Mostly in the last years we saw each other at funerals. Al Adams understood that’s how it was when a person lived a long time; it was a duty of friendship to escort your friends to wherever their next step might take them. Some of those we joined to escort were well-known people from Al’s political life, people like his old ally in many a fight, former Sen. and Gov. Terry Sanford, but others were just folks, faithful travelers Al had known as neighbors, maybe from the beach, or the opera or the “courthouse crowd” or the Players Retreat, which was near his home in the old Cameron Park neighborhood.
Yes, in so many places, in any kind of crowd, there would be Al’s white hair and his beard, a beard being a little uncommon for a man of his years, but he liked it.
Al died last week in Raleigh, at the age of 85. He lived a righteous life and he fought through declining health off and on to keep it going.
Al always kept going, and sometimes, as a lawyer, legislator and activist, the hills were pretty steep.
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He was a civil rights man in that struggle against anger and rage and inhumanity, but Al, by God, didn’t care and went toe to toe with anyone who cared to stand against him. (Sanford, with whom Al formed a law firm once, was the same way, afraid of nothing.) He was ahead of his time on virtually all the issues that confronted his generation, and not afraid to be labeled a progressive or a liberal.
As a member of the state House for five terms, Al was a member of an ever-dwindling group, the members of which liked to be called “the voice of the little guy.” That’s right. Al stood up for ordinary folks, though he was himself an extraordinary man — attorney, lobbyist, opera lover, sailor.
But the “common man” had an uncommon friend in the General Assembly. Al fought for public education, for women’s rights, for civil rights. In his obituary, one prominent notation that would have pleased him was the fact that he’d led the way to integrate the Wake County Bar Association. Today, members of that group are proud that their action came before that of the state Bar Association. So they’re proud of Al Adams, whether they knew him or not.
Ah, yes. I told him once I wished he were still there, in the legislature, because it would be fun to watch him on the floor being attacked as a liberal and shocking those who opposed him by not rejecting the label at all. That would have been a kick, to have a youngster among conservatives call Al a “liberal” and then wonder why he didn’t recoil from it, only to have another conservative lean over to warn, “Better watch out now.”
A person with strong conviction is admirable. One with the courage of conviction is a powerful force. And that was Al. He stood up for schools, for teachers, for the public university system, for financial protections for average people, because for him, that was the point of public service — to stand for folks who didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of clout. He’d be their clout. He was their clout. Oh, yes.
And he loved it. Al was “energized” by a fight, former Gov. Jim Hunt said. That’s it exactly, and therein lies the greatness in a public servant often fighting for things that are not universally popular: the battle only makes them stronger and more determined to carry on.
So that’s it, then. Al Adams was one of the good guys and never wavered from honest conviction or moved out of the line wherein he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the average folks who needed him. He was proud to be there, and they were glad to have him.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org