Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Walter McKenzie Clark, 1846-1924
The Negro in North Carolina and the South. His Fifty-five Years of Freedom and What He Has Done. Commencement Address at St. Augustine's School, Raleigh, N. C., May 26, 1920, by Chief Justice Walter Clark, of North Carolina
From St. Augustine's Record, Vol. 25, no. 5. Raleigh, N. C.: [St. Augustine's School?], 1920.

Summary

Walter McKenzie Clark (19 Aug. 1846-20 May 1924), chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Progressive reformer, and historian, is the author of several items included in "The North Carolina Experience." Clark was born in Halifax County, North Carolina, the son of a wealthy planter who later became a brigadier general in the North Carolina militia during the Civil War. The younger Clark also saw action during the conflict, then completed a degree at the University of North Carolina, and ultimately returned to the field as a major. In the decades after the Civil War, Clark became a successful railroad attorney, serving as general counsel to the Raleigh and Gaston line. It was in this capacity that he wrote the History of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad Company (1877). Clark also managed the Raleigh News, where he urged his readers to abandon the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy and take up twin gospels of New South industrialization and racial harmony. (For more discussion of these issues, see Politics & Government/Reconstruction and Economics & Business/General.)

Clark began his forty-year judicial career in 1885 with his appointment to the superior court. Appointment and then election to the Supreme Court followed. Though Clark was a Democrat, he showed enough Populist tendencies to appeal to Fusionists as well as Democrats. In 1896, Clark was even a contender for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. After 1896, Clark's populism trumped his corporate background, and in dissenting opinions, he began to attack North Carolina's largest business interests, including American Tobacco and several large railroads, though not the Raleigh and Gaston. Clark's controversial politics earned him powerful enemies, but he managed to win three terms as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. In 1912, Clark made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in a bruising primary battle between him, incumbent Furnifold M. Simmons, Governor William W. Kitchin, and former governor Charles Brantley Aycock.

After the Senate defeat, Clark became even more committed to progressive reform. He became an outspoken supporter of legal, economic, and political equality for white women, and served as a legal advisor to the North Carolina League of Women Voters. Clark's views on women's rights can be reviewed in a dissenting legal opinion, "Relating to the Right of Women in North Carolina to be Notaries Public" (1915), and in two of Clark's many speeches to North Carolina women's groups: "Address . . . Before the Federation of Women's Clubs" (1913) (on legal rights) and "Ballots for Both" (1916).

America's crusade to make the world "safe for democracy" during World War I further galvanized Clark's devotion to bringing what he called "socialized democracy" to North Carolina. At the beginning of the war, President Woodrow Wilson, a fellow progressive Democrat, appointed Clark to the new National War Labor Board. The Board's mandate was to balance the rights of workers with the need to keep production going, especially in war industries. Clark sympathized with workers when mediating disputes over hours, wages, and working conditions, but the Board tended to come down on the side of industry. In the 1920s, Clark continued to advocate for unions, workmen's compensation, and an eight-hour day.

Clark's progressivism also extended into the forbidden realm of race relations, as evinced by his 1920 commencement address at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, titled "The Negro in North Carolina and the South." Clark did not go so far as to advocate what might have been considered heretical notions of social equality or integration. Clark's racial views, however, did diverge from prevailing white opinion, which saw African Americans, as, at best, perpetual subordinates and, at worst, as dangerous beasts. In this address, Clark congratulates the black audience at Saint Augustine. He argues that they represent such a sizable portion of the population and productive segment of the labor force that the future of North Carolina and of the entire South depends on them. Further, he maintains that the success of black businessmen and educators and the service of black veterans during WWI proves African Americans worthy of political rights and increased public support.

Works Consulted: Brooks, Aubrey Lee, Walter Clark, Fighting Judge, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944; Brooks, Aubrey Lee and Lefler, Hugh Talmage, eds., The Papers of Walter Clark Brooks, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948-1950.

DocSouth staff

Document menu