Retired North Carolina House Rep. Mickey Michaux has a sort of natural inclination to refer to the words of a friend of his, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“How long? Not long. Because the ark of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The words offer comfort as Michaux reflects on the ongoing protests and riots around the nation.
“‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny and whatever affects one affects all.’ These are the words that Martin spoke 50 60 years ago,” Michaux said. “These are the words that we need to be a paying attention to now.”
King encouraged Michaux to enter politics. His tenure was the longest of any member of the state house.
“I met Martin in 1956 near the end of the Montgomery bus boycott when I invited him at the time to speak at a trade meeting program we were having. Of course, the hotels weren’t open at the time, so we stayed at our house,” Michaux recalled.
“We talked about his brother, who I went to school with. We talked about things in general because there were several hours before the speech was to happen. My mother cooked dinner, and as with most Baptist preachers, they love a good dinner. And, somehow, Martin was affected, I think, by my mother’s dinner more than any conversation that I had had with him.
“But, the fact of the matter was, and I’ll tell folks, my father always sat at the head of the table in the dining room. Especially when we had company. This time I saw my father put Martin at the head of the table. And, at that time, I knew we were in the midst of great company.”
“There was a kind of kinship going on between Atlanta and Durham. Atlanta had Atlanta Life Insurance and Durham had North Carolina Mutual. They had a big real estate operation and we had a big real estate operation. So, there was a kinship and a sort of competitiveness between Atlanta and Durham. And Martin said that he had always heard about it and wanted to see it.
“And he came here. And that’s how we struck up the friendship that we had. It just lasted. Martin would say, ‘Mickey, you know, you’d make a good politician.’ And I said, ‘Martin, you’re out of your ever-loving mind. Never would I put myself in politics.’
“I said, ‘Martin, you are the person who doesn’t believe in violence. You are a peaceful person. I’m not as peaceful.’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘Well, you’ll learn.’
“That was 1964. It was in my senior year of law school at North Carolina Central University. In 1964, I made my first run in politics. I called Martin. I said, ‘Martin, you’ve convinced me that I want to become involved in politics.’ And there was a long, deafening silence on the other end of the line, and I said, ‘Are you still there?’
“And he said, ‘Well, it’s about damn time you did something I asked you to do.'”
King was supposed to visit Michaux in Durham, but he was called to Memphis. He was assassinated during that trip to Memphis, leading cities across the country to riot.
“That weekend, he called and said, ‘I’ve got to go back to Memphis because things are sort of breaking down, but call the office and set up next weekend or the following weekend and I’ll be there. Tell mother to hold the food. I’ll get there.’ And that was my last conversation with him,” Michaux said.
“Fifty-two years later, we are back in the same situation. So, the attitude then, 52 years ago, was different. I guess people are just sick and tired of the systemic racism that exists now.”
Michaux feels it’s different this time. He’s encouraged by people of all races peacefully protesting. But, he believes there’s a desperate need for leadership that includes empathy, sympathy, and encouragement. He is also deeply disturbed by the violence and warns that the past can repeat itself.
“Because if you don’t know your history, you are bound to repeat it, and it just scares me right now,” he said. “All of the protests are because of the death of George Floyd. They started out peacefully, yet this element came in and turned it into a riot.”
Michaux said no one loves their country more than African Americans. He reminded people that Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution. He was a black man shot and killed during the Boston Massacre. That’s just one example he feels could be helpful in understanding American history.
Now, at 90 years old, he holds hope still. Michaux isn’t just looking back at his own fight for civil rights, justice, and the success of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also holds hope that America will withstand this moment and be what its forefathers envisioned.
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