Howard Lee: breaking barriers, making history

Former Chapel Hill, NC Mayor Howard Lee stands next to a 1970s photo of himself at the Chapel Hill Library, Friday, November 21, 2014.
Former Chapel Hill, NC Mayor Howard Lee stands next to a 1970s photo of himself at the Chapel Hill Library, Friday, November 21, 2014. News & Observer | file photo

The first few months of 1969 were tumultuous in the United States.

In the early months of Richard Nixon’s presidency, student protests over civil rights and the Vietnam war rocked college campuses. Here in Durham, in February, black students occupied Duke University’s administrative headquarters, the Allen Building, and across the country planning was underway for what would be a massive antiwar demonstration in the fall. The Stonewall riots in New York City would come to be seen as the birth of the modern gay-rights movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just a few years before officially ended generations of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, but the crusade for social justice was far from over. But on May 6, 1969, in a milestone event, 34-year-old Howard Lee was elected mayor of Chapel Hill and became the first African-American to lead a majority-white southern city.

In the nearly five decades since, Lee has had a distinguished public career — a state senator, the first African-American to head a state cabinet department, a member of the utilities commission and the first African-American chairman of the N.C. Board of Education. Always, year after year, Lee has been a vigorous supporter of education and a proselytizer for its role in opening opportunities for all children, but especially minority children.

Thursday night, the Public School Forum of North Carolina presented Lee its Jay Robinson Legacy & Education Leadership Award at the Raleigh Convention Center. Thanks to my wife, Pat — herself a champion for education and a previous recipient of the Robinson award — I was privileged to be among the 300 or so guests.

For those who know Chapel Hill only as the liberal bastion it is today, there were reminders of what a different era it was when Lee began his political leadership and public service. Keith Poston, the Public School Forum’s president and executive director, recalled how Lee and his wife, Lillian, were met with death threats and a cross-burning on their lawn when they moved to Chapel Hill in the mid-1960s.

Lee’s response was to run for mayor, embarking on a career of, as state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh put it Thursday evening, “breaking down barriers not just for himself but for other people.” Blue, the Senate’s minority leader, was a college student in 1969 and spoke of the inspiration of Lee’s mayoral election. He praised Lee’s ability to bring people together: “In an era that sought to exclude, he found ways to include.”

Still energetic and active at 82, Lee is busy as president of the Howard N. Lee Institute, focusing on increasing “the number of disadvantaged students, especially black boys, graduating from high school prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution.”

One of his initiatives has been the Stem Academy at Durham’s Lowe’s Grove Magnet Middle School. Its principal, Tekeisha Mitchell, was one of five speakers paying tribute to Lee Thursday. “He impacted our students lives and made a difference with real children,” she said.

Another speaker was former Gov. Jim Hunt, appearing by video because he was otherwise engaged with family and friends celebrating his 80th birthday. Lee “is a man who has made history and is still making it,” said Hunt, who himself has made a fair amount of history.

North Carolina and the Triangle are fortunate Lee has made and is making that history here.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.

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