Politics & Government

NC power players describe civil rights path to political leadership

Former Charlotte politicians reflect on race

Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx, director of Federal Housing Finance Agency and former congressman Melvin Watt discuss how their work as civil rights activists laid the groundwork for their political careers
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Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx, director of Federal Housing Finance Agency and former congressman Melvin Watt discuss how their work as civil rights activists laid the groundwork for their political careers

Three prominent North Carolina politicians who have championed civil rights issues and rose to positions of political power called on the nation’s youth to embrace similar opportunities during a Saturday panel discussion in Washington.

Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte; Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, another former mayor; and Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt, a former congressman who represented the 12th District, spoke about the civil rights struggles during the 2016 March on Washington Film Festival at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch joined the three men to discuss the short film “From Civil Rights to Elected Office,” which centered around how Gantt made his way from a 1960s social change agent to a North Carolina lawmaker. They also talked about present-day challenges and how young men and women might be able to take on those obstacles.

Opportunities will find you, but you’ve got to be prepared to take advantage of them when they do.

Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt

“Young people can make a difference,” Gantt told the Observer. “They have to really understand and believe in what they think America is all about, what kind of country we are, what are the values that we hold very high, and define that....

“After getting that education, that understanding, you have to have some passion to go out and do something about it. You can’t simply be satisfied.”

Gantt was the first black student admitted to Clemson University, a member of the Charlotte City Council from 1974 to 1983 and mayor from 1983 to 1987. His success prompted Watt, who managed his campaigns, to run for Congress.

“Opportunities will find you, but you’ve got to be prepared to take advantage of them when they do,” Watt said during the panel discussion. “And that’s true whether it’s in a work setting or a political setting or an economic setting. You have got to be prepared every day to meet whatever that challenge is, whatever that opportunity is.”

Gantt’s struggle to change the social dynamics of North Carolina has inspired many people, Lynch said.

Lynch, a Greensboro native, was a surprise guest speaker at the film festival. She recounted the days when her Baptist minister father helped support civil rights activists by letting them use the basement of his church to plan and organize their marches.

“(We) honor those days and we honor those efforts, and we spend a lot of time in our historical moments talking about them and commemorating the marches and the sit-ins as we should,” she said.

“But you know, things didn’t just stop at that moment. We didn’t just leap from 1964 to today with the current makeup of the White House and so many members of the administration.”

In between, she said, people took the energy of the civil rights movement and got involved at every level of local government.

“They brought it to life and they made it real,” she said.

Changes to the country have been made since the 1960s, but more still needs to happen, Gantt said. Society is struggling, he said. There are people who are left out, kids being shot in the street, police brutality and a public education system in lots of cities that falls, he said.

“There’s a lot wrong with the world,” he said. “There’s a lot right with it, too. But there’s a lot of things that still need to be fixed and it is a challenge.”

Maggie Ybarra, 202-383-6048 @MolotovFlicker

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