Frank Porter Graham: Southern Liberal, Citizen of the World by William A. Link

Frank Porter Graham: Southern Liberal, Citizen of the World
By William A. Link
University of North Carolina Press
Hardback, 384 pages

Life of Frank Porter Graham illuminates what Southerners could achieve

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

“Frank Porter Graham” (University of North Carolina Press) is timely—Governor William Winter’s Memorial Service is Tuesday, and his years of public service invariably reference the Education Reform Act of 1982. Forthcoming commencements are reminders of the aspirations and opportunities conferred by erudition.

Frank Porter Graham was President of the University of North Carolina from 1930 until 1949. Graham’s tenure was the school’s apogee. W.J. Cash’s “The Mind of the South” extols the institution’s virtues, identifying UNC as the intellectual epicenter of the South, showcasing what the South ideally could become.

Inhabiting benighted times in which cynicism prevails, it is ethereal to examine the reality that diminished expectations are unnecessary and disappointment stultifies.

A pleasant surprise for me—one likely paralleled among readers with families participating in Southern civic life over generations—was the number of family members and friends referenced in the recounting of Graham’s public service and spirit. The confluence is hardly shocking. The Sunbelt taken for granted in 2022 was a backwater prior to World War II. It is difficult to fathom that, prior to the 1950 census, Mississippi had more Congressional Representatives than Florida, but statistics do not deceive—notwithstanding naysayers denying factual accuracies.

Graham’s appreciation that an informed, engaged citizenry was essential to realizing the South’s potential was indispensable in the transformation of former Confederate States enduring enormous challenges.

Bill Friday, a successor of Graham, observed that, “serving as UNC president was ‘a much better position than being Governor of the state anytime’ because the job had a greater and more sustained impact on North Carolinians than any elective office.”

What activated Graham’s vision while educating North Carolina’s future leaders was hardly radical, except to those turning blind eyes to truths underlying the Bible Belt—described by Flannery O’Connor as a Christ-haunted landscape:

“Graham believed that taking up the cross was a true path to social salvation, to the rebuilding of society in the modern world. If Christians truly took up the cross, he said, ‘there would be enough power in the Church to transform our sinful selves, our un-Christian society and our broken world.’”

Graham rose to the defense of his Minister in Chapel Hill, who was assailed for advocating verities in the Gospel, sending a telegram to former UNC Law School Dean M.T. Van Hecke—father of Bayard Van Hecke, stalwart member of Jackson’s Jitney-Jungle Food Stores management team in the 1950s and 1960s—stating that “the minister led a ‘Christ-centered Church’ that was ‘devoted to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man which, in reverence, humility, love and mercy, transcend differences of race, class and doctrine.’In the troubled world of the early 1950s, where war was prevalent and freedom suppressed ‘under the combined assaults of communistic atheism and materialism,’ Presbyterians should not ‘exalt the sectarian differences which may divide us.’”

Cataclysms bifurcating the world into nationalists and internationalists during the Second World War were such, Graham wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review Spring 1955 edition, that, “Hundreds of millions of the earth’s people of color were rising up against racism… and they opposed the idea of European whites’ innate superiority. All human beings, ‘brown, red, black, yellow, and white,’ shared the human inheritance. Whites had achieved global mastery only because of superior science and technology; worldwide white supremacy was based on political and military power, not on any inherent racial characteristics. Fascism and totalitarianism brought racism into ‘global focus.’”

The life of Frank Porter Graham deserves careful consideration, fifty years after his death, on February 16, 1972. Graham’s legacy raises crucial questions about what being a Southerner encompasses. Frank Porter Graham’s example is important at a time when orthodoxies associated with the Sovereignty Commission and Citizens Councils are as oppressive as ever.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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