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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Martin Gerry, August 28, 1991. Interview L-0157. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Friday's complexity and his response to desegregation pressure

Gerry offers his thoughts on William C. Friday in the excerpt, describing him as "a complicated person." Friday, the president of UNC-Chapel Hill, kept his own counsel as he quietly integrated his school, and as a result may have been viewed as an enemy both by aggressive segregationists and integrationists.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Martin Gerry, August 28, 1991. Interview L-0157. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

If there's anything else you'd like to add about Bill Friday specifically, and specifically having to do with this case of desegregation of the university.
MARTIN GERRY:
Well, you know, he's a complicated person. You know, when you asked me before, I've actually thought about it before you came. A very complicated man. And maybe you've found this in doing this piece.
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah.
MARTIN GERRY:
But to characterize, because I think thatߞclearly was very bright. He clearly had a good deal of personal charm and a lot of political acumen. What I don't know and what we've talked about a little bit today is to what extent his hands were tied. I really never did understand the, you know, the moccasins he was in, in a sense. So that's why it's so hard to make a judgment. You know, looked at from the Jesse Helms position the man was a radical Bolshevik, probably.
WILLIAM LINK:
Right.
MARTIN GERRY:
Looked at from a Julius Chambers position he was a reactionary man.
WILLIAM LINK:
Did he play his cards pretty close to the vest?
MARTIN GERRY:
Oh, absolutely.
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah.
MARTIN GERRY:
And changed vests often. But I'm not sure. I mean I don't want this to be construed as really as critical. I tell you the person that I recall that I sort of view asߞlet me think about this some, and that'sߞat the time I knew fairly well a fellow who was the superintendent of schools in Chapel Hill. He had worked at NIE. And he wasߞduring the main desegregation of elementary and secondary schoolsߞhe later came up to Montgomery County where I live, in the Maryland suburbs and was superintendent of schools there. And the reason I say that is that in Chapel Hill he was seen as a major liberal mover, shaker. You know, as far as I could see, he basically wanted to do was obey the school desegregation laws. He went up to Montgomery County with, I think, the image of an innovator, reformer, and ended up being reviewed as a kind of a traditional main-line guy. Do you see what I'm sort of getting at?
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah.
MARTIN GERRY:
But when you ask about North Carolina as it was in the '70s, it's clear to me that it must be sufficiently different living there from what I recall, say, living here. And this was a southern jurisdiction. That gives me pause in making judgments about people, you know, in what they had to deal with. I don't rememberߞI don't think I ever met with the board of governors with the University of North Carolina, but I can now begin to imagine who some of those people might have been. And Bill Friday may very well have faced some extraordinarily difficult challenges to even do what he did, which I would not in the abstract say was a great deal, in terms of desegregating or increasing higher education opportunities. That's why it's hard, I think, to kind of come to a judgment on him. Maybe easier for you. And I'm sure the more people you talk to it will be much easier to form that picture.
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah.
MARTIN GERRY:
But I can't really do it.
WILLIAM LINK:
Yeah. Well, you're right. He's still a hard person to figure out.
MARTIN GERRY:
Yeah, I mean, in terms of competence, there's no question in my mind that heߞwhat he did and how he handled things, he handled very competently. And I never, ever heard from him anything that I would remotely describe as racist, or stereotypes, orߞI mean, there was never any rhetoric, or none of that. In fact, not from his staff, either. They wereߞthey were almost at timesߞit was almost a sanitary approach. And in some states occasionally you'd get somebody who'll say "goddammit" and then make it at least a racist allusion. That never happened, and certainly never happened with Bill Friday. And, you know, what does that mean? I mean, does that mean that the guy really didn't have any views? Does it mean that he's just very slick and confident? You see, that's just what's so hard. You know, I can report the fact to you but I don't know what it means exactly.