Excitement and anticipation reigned everywhere as a young African American campaigning on a promise of change won a groundbreaking election victory.
    The winner, having promised change, confronted the awesome responsibility of delivering it. Some of his African-American supporters expected him to quickly redress hundreds of years of the consequences of their second-class citizenship. Meanwhile, whites watched every step for evidence of preferential attention to African Americans.
    The spotlight that shone upon him would be uncomfortably hot — so hot that it demanded from him an extraordinary coolness.
    It sounds like the story of Barack Obama’s recent election, doesn’t it?
    No. It is 1969, when Howard Lee won the mayor’s election in Chapel Hill, becoming the first African American to win the top job in a majority white Southern town or city. It was more amazing, perhaps, than the recent presidential election. Lee’s victory came in at a time when the civil rights struggles were ongoing, and the legacy of centuries of discrimination was very fresh.
    {mosimage}Lee’s new memoir, The Courage to Lead: One Man’s Journey in Public Service (Cotton Patch Press, distributed by John F. Blair), begins with his memories of the night of May 6, 1969, when his victory propelled him into the national and international news, and as he says, “My name was written in history.” His moving recollections of that night, the campaign that proceeded it and the first days of his service as mayor give compelling insights into our country’s history as well as a portrait of Lee at that moment in time.
    Even better than his memories of the election are Lee’s recollections about how he got to that victorious on that evening.
    In Lee’s story of growing up on a sharecropper’s farm and in a small Georgia town, readers can share his growing up pains and joys in the days of strict segregation and subservience.
    His account of losing his beloved horse to the landlord when his grandfather gave up his tenant farm will bring tears to anyone who has ever loved — and lost — an animal. So will his story of losing his best friend, a white boy named Lukee. Lukee’s father told him to break off the friendship because the neighbors did not like Lee “hanging around their house” and that self-respecting whites did not associate with “niggers.”
    Lee excelled in his hometown’s segregated schools, but they did not prepare him for his struggle with college. His determination and resourcefulness overcame his lack of preparation and inadequate financial resources. That success gave him a bedrock of self-confidence on which he built the rest of his life
His army experience may have taught him his most important lessons. As a low level private, he was chosen to lead the soldiers in his barracks, the majority of whom were white. He found two things:  He was smarter than most of them and he could lead them.
    These lessons gave him the confidence to stand up to his superiors in the army. He wrote President Ike Eisenhower to protest the army’s “under use” of his talents. He refused to back down when his commanders sought to pressure him to give up his efforts to get served at a segregated café near his base.
    Foolhardy as these efforts may have seemed, Lee developed the determination to resist authority when its actions unfairly discriminated against him or others on account of race.
    There is much more to Lee’s story, including how he became an important “insider” in North Carolina political life, serving today as chair of the state’s Board of Education, a member of the Utility Commission, and a part of Governor-elect Bev Perdue’s transition team.
    Everyone who wants to learn about North Carolina political history should study this book. They will get a bonus — a very good read.

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