On April 4, 1968, Henry “Mickey” Michaux Jr. was driving down Fayetteville Street in Durham on the way to his parents’ house, listening to the radio.
He heard the words he later realized he had feared all along: Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
Like much of the country, he grappled with shock and grief. But for Michaux, the internal struggle was personal — ‘Martin,’ as he fondly refers to him, had been a close friend for more than a decade.
“Somewhere in my inner self, I said, the man is too big, folks are not gonna like it because he has spoken the truth,” Michaux said in an interview last week. “You think things like that would happen but you don’t think that they’re going to happen.”
It was almost enough to disillusion him from politics. But the “political bull” in him, as he put it, never quite died. He ran for the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1972 and won, determined to continue King’s legacy.
“I didn’t want to see the New York Times say, ‘the dream that come undone,’ which is what is happening now,” he said.
Fifty years after King’s assassination, Michaux announced this month he won’t run for re-election, leaving behind a long legacy in the state House. At age 87, he’s long past when most would think of retirement.
“It got to a point where I was being able to make a contribution for the benefit not only of my constituents but for the rest of the state,” he said. “And it just got to be habit.”
But he fears the impact he’s had on the state is endangered under the state’s current leadership.
From civil rights to politics
Michaux’s mother’s cooking may have been the impetus for his friendship with King.
He first met the burgeoning civil rights leader in 1956, near the end of the Montgomery bus boycott. He invited him to be a speaker at a rally, and King spent the night at his family’s house. The two hit it off.
Slowly, King’s words stuck in Michaux’s mind.
“One of the things he kept beating in my mind … is that African Americans need politics more desperately than any other group in American society,” Michaux said. “He said because what happens there is that we need a seat at the table where the rules are being made — if you’re not there you can’t have any impact.”
One day when the two were together, King told Michaux that he’d make a good politician.
“I said, ‘Martin, you’re out of your ever-loving mind,” Michaux said. “It’ll never happen.”
But sure enough, it did happen. Michaux ran for the House in 1964 and lost by 120 votes. He ran in 1966 and lost again. And in 1968 again.
But King never gave up on him. Michaux rode the momentum from African-American victories in races across the country.
“We knew something had to happen in the South,” he said. “It was just a question of when and who’s going to do it.”
Finally, in 1972, after swearing off of politics following King’s assassination, he ran for office again, and this time, he won. Though King’s death had been painful, Michaux said significant progress had been made, and he wanted to continue that.
“North Carolina I looked at as a fertile ground for moving things forward because unlike Mississippi or Alabama, you didn’t have the violence that was perpetrated in those states,” he said. “We felt we had a group of people that could sit down and reason together.”
A consequential tenure
In a political landscape that has shifted during the 19 1/2 two-year terms he’s served in the House, Michaux has left a lasting impact. He’s supported historically black colleges and universities like his alma mater, NC Central University, so much so that the university’s school of education is named after him.
“I think there are folks who would love to see HBCUs go by the way,” he said. “But I think there’s enough impetus to keep the mission of those schools in the forefront.”
He also pointed to his accomplishments on issues like minority health, economic development, voting rights, education, gang violence and gun control.
Michaux helped push for expansions of voting rights in North Carolina and was one of the most outspoken critics of the North Carolina elections law that included a voter ID requirement, a law which was ultimately struck down as racially discriminatory. He was a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the 2013 law written by Republicans.
Michaux’s tenure captured the attention of Jarvis Hall, an NC Central political science professor, and Hall is now working on a political biography of Michaux which he hopes to finish this year.
Hall, who started following Michaux’s career in 1982, was impressed by his longevity in the legislature.
“One line I have in the book is that there are so many people who have no idea as to the impact that Mickey Michaux has had in their lives,” Hall said. “But in some way he has touched hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of North Carolinians in his work in the legislature.”
Henry Frye, the first African-American to be elected to the legislature in the 20th century and later the first black North Carolina Supreme Court justice, served with Michaux in the House. When Michaux was elected in 1972, he was one of three black North Carolina state lawmakers, including Frye.
“Mickey has what I call stick-to-it-iveness,” Frye, now 85, said. “He doesn’t accept failure as an excuse for not doing what he thinks is the right thing to do.”
Michaux doesn’t yet know what he’ll do in retirement, but there’s one thing he knows for certain: politics will never leave his blood.
And now, he said, the progress achieved in the 20th century is at risk of being erased. He worries about the divisiveness of the current political climate.
“I’m concerned about the fact that people don’t give people due respect for how they think, who they love or whatever,” he said. “Simply because I’m black doesn’t mean I don’t bleed the same blood that you bleed. … Martin used to always say, ‘I can’t make you love me, but I can sure as the devil make you respect me.”
Michaux pointed to the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans gained control of the General Assembly, as the turning point in that progress.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who played a key role in passing the 2013 voter ID law, said he doesn’t believe the state has regressed, and that the General Assembly will be committed to fighting for equality in Michaux’s absence.
“I know that Mickey and people of his generation had to live with overt discrimination,” Lewis said. “I certainly think that we as a people and as a society have progressed beyond that. I think that oftentimes policy disagreements are escalated to be conflicts of a racial nature and I think that’s very unfortunate.”
Hall said Michaux is respected by lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum.
“When you talk to people in the legislature on both sides of the aisle, they often wonder on a particular issue, what does Mickey think?” Hall said.
Lewis said despite his ideological differences with Michaux, he considers him a friend, and turns to him for advice.
“There were a lot of visits that I had to his office where he would reflect on the way that obstacles were overcome in the past and I learned from those,” he said. “So in a way I hope that I can help carry on some of the institutional knowledge that will be lost when his term ends.”
Danielle Chemtob: @daniellechemtob