State Politics

Former US Sen. Robert Morgan of Lillington dies

Former U.S. Senator Robert Morgan campaigns for North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall at the Harnett County Courthouse Commons in Lillington, N.C. on Friday June 18, 2010. Marshall was running for U.S. Senate.
Former U.S. Senator Robert Morgan campaigns for North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall at the Harnett County Courthouse Commons in Lillington, N.C. on Friday June 18, 2010. Marshall was running for U.S. Senate.

Former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan, whose political career mirrored the Southern Democratic Party’s journey from segregation into the national mainstream, died Saturday. He was 90.

From humble beginnings on a Harnett County farm, Morgan had a remarkable career in Raleigh and Washington serving as a powerful state legislator, a crusading attorney general, a one-term U.S. senator and finally, in an unlikely coda, as head of the State Bureau of Investigation.

Throughout his career, Morgan displayed a pronounced independent streak, whether it was taking on North Carolina’s establishment to create a medical school at East Carolina University, alienating conservatives by supporting the Panama Canal Treaty, or reining in the excesses of the FBI and the CIA.

Rufus Edmisten, a former state attorney general and secretary of state, said Morgan was a longtime friend who has been undervalued by North Carolinians because he’s been out of the public spotlight for so many years.

“He was an amazing person,” Edmisten said Saturday. “Here was a guy from little Lillington, North Carolina, who beat all odds to become U.S. senator. You have to admire someone who does things like that.”

More than most other Tar Heel political figures, Morgan represented the changing views of the South. Morgan grew up in the South of country stores, mule-driven plows and strict racial segregation.

He made his debut in big-time politics in 1960 as the campaign manager of I. Beverly Lake, the last major gubernatorial candidate who was a fervent segregationist.

But by the time Morgan ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974, Lake had disowned him for having “gone over to the NAACP and the Sanford Wing of the Democratic Party.” Lake was referring to former Gov. Terry Sanford, one of the South’s leading progressives.

It was always easy to underestimate Morgan, in part because of his slight 5-foot, 6-inch, 130-pound frame and an I’m-just-a-simple-country-lawyer speaking style. He was inevitably described in newspaper articles as “boyish.” But underneath Morgan’s aw-shucks exterior was hard-driving ambition, boundless energy and a toughness that would often surprise his adversaries.

Morgan was a rooted man who would live his entire life among his friends and neighbors in Harnett County, except for stints in college, the Navy and the Senate.

During World War II, Morgan served aboard a transport in the Pacific. He was called back into the Navy during the Korean War, serving on the aircraft carrier Valley Forge. He was later a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

It was at East Carolina University, then a teacher’s college known affectionately as “EeCeeTeeCee,” that he met his wife, Katie. Morgan described a 10-1 female-male ratio as a young man’s paradise.

“They’d whistle to us from the windows,” Morgan recalled.

His political career was launched when he was a 24-year-old law student at Wake Forest University. He was chosen by Venable Baggett, a Lillington businessman and the local political boss, to be a candidate for Harnett County clerk of court in 1950.

In 1954, Morgan was elected to the first of five terms in the N.C. Senate, rising in 1965 to become its leader as president pro tempore. He mastered the legislative process and led key committees.

Morgan generally fit into the Senate, which was dominated by small-town conservative Democrats like him.

He was a champion of his alma mater, ECU, leading a fight against the University of North Carolina administration and most of the major newspapers to create a medical school that would serve the east. He served nine terms as chairman of the ECU board of trustees.

“If you took East Carolina University — and especially the medical school — out of the east we would look like a developing nation,” Morgan said in 2008.

Morgan was a strong backer of the controversial Speaker Ban, which the legislature passed in 1963 to bar communists from speaking on University of North Carolina campuses. The measure was part of a backlash against the civil rights movement.

Critics said the Speaker Ban was a flagrant violation of academic freedom, but that’s not how Morgan saw it.

“We are at war with the communists and the communist ideology,” Morgan said in a speech to UNC professors in February 1966. “More than 2,000 American servicemen have died under the direction of Hanoi.”

In 1968, having made a name for himself in the legislature, Morgan was ready to move up. He upset two-term Attorney General Wade Bruton in the Democratic primary, outworking the older man and criticizing him for “inefficiency.”

Morgan remade the attorney general’s office from a low-profile agency that acted as legal counsel for state government to a high-visibility, crusading consumer-oriented agency that went after milk price fixers and car dealers who tampered with odometers, as well as drug dealers. Nearly all of Morgan’s successors have followed that model.

Edmisten said Morgan’s work as attorney general is arguably his most important contribution to the people of North Carolina.

“He turned it into the most renowned consumer protection office in the nation the old-fashioned way, by getting out into the people and not being a product of Madison Avenue,” said Edmisten, who succeeded Morgan as attorney general in 1974.

Morgan’s politics continued to evolve as he transformed himself from a parochial rural legislator into a statewide political figure. In 1970, he began speaking out against pollution. And he criticized the law-and-order excesses of the Nixon administration, saying provisions such as “no knock” searches threatened people’s rights to privacy in their homes.

Morgan seriously considered running for governor in 1972. When the legendary U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin retired in 1974, Morgan ran for his seat. In the primary, he defeated former Congressman Nick Galifianakis, the Democratic Senate nominee two years earlier, and Henry Hall Wilson, the former chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade.

The general election was easier. Riding a post-Watergate Democratic tide, Morgan defeated Republican William Stevens, a little-known businessman, winning 63 percent of the vote.

Stevens had tried to win the support of African-American voters by saying Morgan ran “one of the last hardcore racist campaigns” in the state.

Morgan responded by saying that “my entire public career before then (the 1960 campaign) and since then has been one of fairness to all people.”

He downplayed his role with Lake, saying he had managed Lake’s campaign out of friendship to his old Wake Forest law professor. That prompted Lake to withdraw his backing of Morgan.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Lake, then a state Supreme Court justice, said in a letter to supporters. “The truth is that in 1960, Mr. Morgan repeatedly urged me to become a candidate for governor because he knew and shared my views on the public schools and on the other issues of that campaign.”

Not only did Morgan assume Ervin’s seat, but he took up “Senator Sam’s” role as a defender of civil liberties. As a member of a Senate select committee investigating abuses in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, Morgan found much to alarm him. In particular, he thought longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had abused his authority in wiretapping the phones of many public figures, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“If these things don’t constitute a threat to the American people and to American liberty, I fail to understand our system of government,” Morgan said in a 1976 speech.

In digging into the cloak-and-dagger world of the CIA, Morgan said he had “little doubt” that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was retribution for the CIA’s efforts to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Morgan was regarded as a hawk on defense, a moderate on economic issues and a consumer advocate, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

He was a close ally of President Jimmy Carter, another small-town Southern moderate, and that relationship may have hurt him when he ran for re-election in 1980.

His opponent was Republican John East, a little known political science professor from ECU. East had the backing of Sen. Jesse Helms’ powerful political organization, The National Congressional Club.

Morgan was criticized for his support for aid to the left-wing government in Nicaragua and his opposition to the B-1 bomber.

But the key issue was the Panama Canal. The Club ran a hard-hitting TV campaign against Morgan, accusing him of having “voted to give away your Panama Canal.”

When Morgan first went to the U.S. Senate in 1975, he opposed the treaty that would turn control of the U.S.-built canal over to the Panamanian government. But as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Morgan was sent to Panama to hear the CIA station chief detail vulnerabilities there. Morgan spent a week in Panama meeting with leaders. It changed his mind.

He told the state Bar Association in 1977, “Our relationship with Panama on the future of the canal is a festering sore and affects our relations not only with Latin America but with the rest of the world. Our global position as world leader and a moral standard bearer is seriously weakened by maintaining this vestige of colonialism.”

That didn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

As Helms told a Burlington audience, “Only one North Carolina senator voted to give away the Panama Canal, and it wasn’t Jesse Helms.”

Billy Yeargin, who served as a legislative aide to Morgan, said the senator was called “the hornet from Harnett” because of his tenacity and willingness to fight for what he believed in.

“He held firm to his beliefs,” said Yeargin, who is working on a memoir on Morgan’s political career. “He was never moved from his beliefs. He was a man to be admired even by his political opponents.”

Morgan lost to East by a 50-49 percent margin.

His defeat would begin a trend. Until Richard Burr’s re-election in 2010, no one had been able to hold the seat for more than one term.

Immediately after his defeat, Morgan had more important issues to deal with. He underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, which left permanent nerve damage in his face.

Returning home, Morgan resumed his law practice and considered trying to win back his Senate seat in 1986. But in 1985 he became State Bureau of Investigation director under Attorney General Lacy Thornburg, a position he would hold for seven years.

Morgan had long been interested in the SBI and worked to expand and professionalize the investigative agency when he was attorney general. He had started the N.C. Justice Academy in Salemburg to train police officers.

More recently, Morgan served as founding president of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit organization that, among other things, advocated for a system of public financing of candidates.

He continued to practice law in Lillington and Raleigh into his eighties.

Yeargin said Morgan had been in declining health the past three to four years.

The O’Quinn Peebles Phillips Funeral Home said that funeral arrangements will be announced Sunday afternoon.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, @oldpolhack