Durham County

Durham politician, civil rights leader Mickey Michaux to retire from General Assembly

North Carolina House Representative H.M. "Mickey" Michaux Jr. pictured in 2017 telling stories about Louis E. Austin, founder of the Carolina Times newspaper.
North Carolina House Representative H.M. "Mickey" Michaux Jr. pictured in 2017 telling stories about Louis E. Austin, founder of the Carolina Times newspaper. bthomas@heraldsun.com

A political fixture in Durham and the General Assembly, N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, 87, announced Thursday that he will retire from elected office.

The first time Martin Luther King Jr. visited Durham, it was at Michaux’s invitation. Michaux was just 26 years old in 1956 and a member of the Durham Business and Professional Chain, an African-American organization. King stayed at Michaux’s house then and several more times.

King encouraged him to get into politics, but Michaux lost the races he entered in the mid-1960s, while he was making a name for himself in the civil rights movement.

After King was assassinated, Michaux said Thursday in a speech at the General Assembly, he told himself he’d never go into politics.

Now, after winning 22 elections to represent Durham in the General Assembly, Michaux is in his 43rd year in politics. It’ll be his last, he said Thursday, announcing he doesn’t plan to run for re-election.

“Life has been good to me. Life has given me the honor of serving in this body and serving the state of North Carolina,” Michaux said.

When he first joined the legislature, he was just the third African-American person ever elected. They decided to band together.

“We were referred to as smart Negroes. That was to our face. So we decided we need to have our caucus, so we started the first black caucus,” he said.

N.C. Rep. M.H. “Mickey” Michaux (D-Durham)

Michaux has talked about retiring with friends and colleagues over the past year. Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Thursday that Michaux told him again less than a week ago that he was not planning to run again.

“I told him I’d believe it when it happened,” Bell said.

Michaux touched on his accomplishments in advancing civil rights in his speech to lawmakers Thursday.

“I want you to be very careful what you do when I’m not here,” he told them.

While the country made a number of positive steps forward in the second half of the 20th century on racial justice, Michaux said, much of that progress seems to be evaporating.

“Somehow or another we have morphed from the 19th century to the 21st century, forgetting all the progress that was made during the 20th century,” he said.

We were referred to as smart Negros. That was to our face. So we decided we need to have our caucus, so we started the first black caucus.

N.C. Rep H.M. “Mickey” Michaux

Education was another focus. Other than his mother and his wife, he said, the most important woman in his life was the principal who ran the segregated boarding school he attended as a kid, which helped him eventually become the first black federal prosecutor in the South since Reconstruction.

Bell, who served as Durham’s mayor for 16 years and on the Durham County Board of Commissioners from 1972 to 1994 and again from 1996 to 2000, was Michaux’s neighbor from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s.

“He’s provided great service to the community in many ways, not just in the General Assembly,” Bell said.

He said one of Michaux’s accomplishments for Durham was the school system merger in 1992, when Bell was a commissioner. It took state legislation to merge the city and county school systems, and while it started in the Senate, Michaux crafted the legislation from the House side, Bell said.

“He’s done so many things,” Bell said. “He worked to get funding for NCCU and other historically black colleges. He’s just done so many things.”

Retired Durham educator Eddie Davis met Michaux in 1982 when he worked on Michaux’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress. Davis, who served a term on the Durham City Council and was just named the city’s public historian, said that Michaux leaving the General Assembly is sad for Durham.

“He’s been such a wonderful leader, and is the longest serving House member that we have, so I hate to see all that experience and knowledge to be lost, but I’m hoping there’s time for recruitment of someone to carry the mantle for Durham,” Davis said.

“For the state, he’s been a stalwart supporter of public schools,” Davis said. “He’s also worked real hard for issues in Durham like support for North Carolina Central University, so much so that the School of Education is named for him.”

“He’s a staunch supporter of voter rights and rights for all people, not just African-American, including women and LGBT. We have seen the equality stamp upon him. He has really been a stalwart supporter of equality for all people in all situations,” Davis said.

Davis also lauded Michaux’s support of free speech, and as a lawyer his knowledge of the state and federal Constitutions.

Michaux said he’s proud of Democrats for their support of North Carolina’s HBCUs, and he gave Republican Rep. Tim Moore, the Speaker of the House, credit for helping install the first black chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

But Michaux also had some playful digs at Republicans. He joked that while it took them 140 years to learn from Democrats how to win in North Carolina, they learned only how to win – not how to govern well.

“If you give us another 140 years, we’ll teach you that too,” he said.

N.C. Rep. David R. Lewis (R-Harnett) tweeted that Michaux is one of the greatest men he knows.

“I value his wisdom and passion. My life and this state are better for his service. I am honored to call him a friend and wish him the very best,” Lewis wrote.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin called Michaux a giant of Durham and North Carolina politics.

“He has worked tirelessly for more than fifty years to create a forward-looking, inclusive North Carolina where the color of one’s skin mattered less than what they believed in their heart,” Goodwin said.

He said that Michaux has “helped spearhead countless civil rights bill through our state legislature and left his own, indelible mark on our state. He helped bring our state together, and everyone in North Carolina is forever indebted to him and his service to our great state.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan