Section Honors Mickey Michaux
By Russell Rawlings
Henry M. “Mickey” Michaux Jr. of Durham, a revered civil rights pioneer and longtime state legislator, was honored on Friday, Feb. 22, as the 2019 recipient of the John McNeill Smith Jr. Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities Section Award.
The award was presented at the section’s annual meeting and CLE at the N.C. Bar Center in Cary by Eric Doggett, who chaired the section’s awards committee.
Michaux is a graduate of North Carolina Central University (1952) and NCCU School of Law (1964). He also served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1952-54 and the U.S. Army Reserves from (1954-60).
He served in the N.C. House of Representatives from 1973-77 and 1983-2018. His legislative service was interrupted by his appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, where he became the first African American to serve in that capacity in the South since Reconstruction.
“Mickey Michaux got involved in publicly promoting constitutional rights during the Civil Rights Movement, when he was responsible for bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to Durham several times before his assassination,” stated his nominator, Emily Seawell, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
“But,” Seawell added, “Michaux would do his greatest constitutional work through the North Carolina General Assembly over a 43-year career that ended in 2018, when he retired at age 87 as the longest-serving member of either house of our state legislature.”
The historical significance of receiving the McNeill Smith Award was not lost on Michaux, who was accompanied by his brother and fellow attorney Eric Michaux and their wives.
“When I finished law school in 1964, I did not know if I would be allowed to take the bar exam because of my relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Michaux said, “because I had been arrested a couple of times for trying to sit in somewhere and because of my relationship with other members of the civil rights community.
“I was planning to sue the State Board of Law Examiners at the time, but a State Bar counselor said that I should wait and see.”
The Michaux brothers gained admission to the State Bar in 1966, but their applications to the North Carolina Bar Association were turned down.
“In 1966 there was a quota on black lawyers being admitted to the bar and only two African Americans passed the bar exam that year, my brother and me,” Michaux said. “Somebody got the idea that since Eric graduated from Duke, and Duke played a great role in the North Carolina Bar Association, that he ought to join the North Carolina Bar Association.
“I tagged along with him and both of us submitted applications, but guess what? We got turned down.”1
Michaux was quick to point out that he had recounted the familiar story, and in fact had asked his brother to join him for the ceremony, to thank and congratulate the NCBA for the progress it has made.
“I am not saying that to cast aspersions or anything,” Michaux said. “I am saying that to show you how far we have come and how much the matter in particular of constitutional law means.
“The award you have given me has come a long way from 53 years ago when we were turned down by the North Carolina Bar Association because of our color. You are to be commended, Bar Association, for the progress you have made, the total progress you have made, which is much more progress than a lot of other institutions still mired in the past.”
Michaux added that he was especially honored to receive an award named for McNeill Smith, his longtime friend and colleague with whom he served in the General Assembly.
“I remember him most in particular because he had done much civil rights law,” Michaux said. “We got to be close friends. The one thing I do remember about him very distinctly, I would see this bicycle parked down in the basement of the legislative building and wondered whose it was.
“Mac Smith came to the legislature every day, rain, sleet, snow, shine, on that bicycle. Every day he traveled from his apartment in Raleigh on that bicycle. He was a great advocate for civil rights and helped integrate the Greensboro City School System.”
The John McNeill Smith Jr. Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities Section Award honors a person who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the ideals embodied in the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of North Carolina by the following: (a) Promoted the awareness and understanding on the part of the profession, the public, and/or public officials of the rights embodied in the Constitution of the United States and/or the Constitution of North Carolina; (b) Encouraged respect for the American constitutional system and the rule of law; and (c) Helped forward the discussion and debate of constitutional issues by the public and/or the profession.
The late John McNeill Smith Jr., who died in 2011, was the founding chair of the NCBA’s Constitutional Rights & Responsibilities Section, serving from 1995-97.
Previous recipients of the John McNeill Smith Jr. Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities Section Award are Dean John Charles “Jack” Boger (2007), John L. Sanders (2008), Justice James G. Exum Jr. (2009), Bertha “B” Merrill Holt (2010), Justice Willis P. Whichard (2011), Justice Paul M. Newby (2012), Judge Robert N. Hunter Jr. (2013) and Justice Robert F. Orr (2014). Hugh Stevens (2015), John Orth (2016), Walter E. Dellinger III (2017) and Justice Robin Hudson (2018).