Howard Lee: Still going strong

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, February 05, 2005

The spring of 1969 was a heady time for the U.S. left. Halfway between the violence of the Democratic convention in Chicago and the peace-and-love of Woodstock, it was a time when millions joined protests against the Vietnam War while increasing militancy turned the movement for civil rights into one for Black Power.

In Chapel Hill, a highly contentious mayoral race was at times overshadowed by striking cafeteria workers at UNC. Nonetheless, a coalition of blacks, liberal civil rights supporters, anti-war activists and those galvanized by the 1968 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy for president and Reginald Hawkins for governor waged an unprecedented campaign to elect Howard Lee as the first black mayor of Chapel Hill (or of a white-majority Southern town since Reconstruction).

In doing so and by also electing a liberal slate to the then-Board of Aldermen, voters swept out an old guard that had dragged its feet on civil rights, on establishing a public transit system and on support for the efforts of the Inter-Church Council.

Now, 36 years later, Edith Wiggins and Kevin Foy have petitioned the Town Council to honor that historic moment by renaming the Chapel Hill Municipal Building for Lee (and his wife, Lillian). As deserving as the Lees may be of such a distinction, the proposal runs contrary to the town's prohibition against naming a facility for someone still living.

The Town Council procedures manual states, "The committee should give strong preference to naming a facility for persons who are deceased. Naming a facility for a living person will only be considered under extraordinary circumstances."

Howard Lee is arguably a textbook case for why this rule is a good one. Lee is not only very much alive, he remains quite active politically.

Lee is chairman of the state Board of Education. Lee also serves as co-chairman of the Chamber of Commerce's Council on a Sustainable Community, giving him a leadership role in a key organization in the Chapel Hill political scene.

Although Lee both promised and delivered a can-do spirit to the mayor's office, his tenure was not without controversy.

A few months after Lee took office, headlines like "Liberal coalition beset by infighting" (NC Anvil, 11/8/69) began to appear.

By the time Lee got to the state Senate, he could no longer galvanize liberals the way he did in 1969. As Mike Nelson put it during Lee's 2002 reelection campaign, "there's a general sense that he's a player in the General Assembly, and in order to be effective he's cozied up to a lot of moderate and conservative business elements. And that's made a lot of progressives wonder what good that effectiveness has done for us?"

Chapel Hillians' view of the Lee legacy might be tempered by the questions surrounding his role in UNC's effort a few years ago to strip the town of zoning authority for university property.

Although Lee took credit for stopping the move, some at the time wondered how the provision got so far in the first place given Lee's much-vaunted clout in the legislature.

"For me, that was the last straw," Joe Herzenberg said at the time. "Howard went along with that, at least for a few days. I wouldn't have believed that of a former mayor."

There has also been speculation about the extent of Lee's connection to the 2002 Chatham County Commissioner campaign of Bunkey Morgan, a former Republican and leading advocate of large-scale development on Chapel Hill's doorstep in northeast Chatham.

Lee headlined a prominent fund-raiser for Morgan and fellow conservative commissioner Carl Outz.

Morgan's opponent, former Commissioner Gary Phillips, said Lee had "made a devil's bargain" by aligning himself with conservative commissioner candidates in Chatham.

None of the above necessarily argues against commemorating Lee's history-making signature achievement of 36 years ago, only that the timing is wrong. Not only is Lee still quite active, he remains close to issues and personalities that shape the contour of Chapel Hill politics today.

The Town Council should either honor the existing rule or flesh out a definition of those "extraordinary circumstances" required for an exception to be made.

In the meanwhile, the renaming proposal should be withdrawn, with due expressions of regret to the Lees and their supporters.

Given their many years of public service, it is hard to imagine that the Lees themselves would not insist that the highest standards of clarity and forthrightness be applied when awarding such an honor.



Just this morning in the N&O, Lee's thoughts about the need for comprehensive sexuality education in our schools left me wondering. Here's what the N&O says:

Lee said he is not aware of strong support across the state for broader parameters. The few phone calls and e-mail messages that he has received, Lee said, have come from parents complaining of teachers going too far in sex ed.

Lee said he is "a very strong progressive on teaching sex education," but he gave no timeline for deciding whether to revisit the curriculum.

"I don't know that it's among our top priorities," Lee said.

(For those not up on this, NC supports sexuality education that omits information about contraceptives and safe sex. I could go on and on here, but suffice it to say, if Lee is as blase about this issue as today's interview in the newspaper suggests, then Lee does not deserve a building yet.)

I was pretty shocked to see Mayor Foy and Councilmember Wiggins' proposal. Not to lessen Howard Lee's accomplishments in the 1960's, but there are many who have worked just as hard for justice (and for our community) for just as long (if not longer) and haven't been rewarded and recognized as well as he has. How about the Fred Battle Municipal Building? That's a name I could get behind.

This proposal is especially weird coming from Foy and Wiggins considering how badly they botched the last renaming (of Airport Road). I agree with Dan's recommendation to drop this idea until the time is right.

Howard Lee already has his name on a municiple building. In Hillsborough, the "Town Barn" has a plaque on the outside of it that gives special thanks to Howard Lee. I think the year on it is 1977. I am not sure if he donated money for the barn or if he helped build it, but his name is definitely on it.

My first political involvement in Chapel Hill was attending a mayoral debate between Howard Lee and Roland Giduz in the Great Hall of the Student Union in late April of 1969 (town elections were in May back then). I later served on the Board of Aldermen with Howard Lee from 1973-1975. While I stopped being a Lee ally in 1977 for a lot of the same reasons that others fell out with him in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, I would say that one of the main reasons the Municipal Building was built was because of Howard getting the town out of the cramped quarters of the old town hall and gettuing the new building built. During his time as Mayor, he was VERY progressive on lots of issues facing the town. If we are considering naming the municipal building after somene, we should judge their actions in municipal government. On that test, Howard passes.

Thanks, Gerry, for your reflections on that time. I read about that debate when reviewing back issues of the Anvil last week.

There are some people who might not like that standard of "if you got it built, it ought to be named for you." Flicka Bateman, who led the fight for sewer extension in many neighborhoods, comes to mind.

OK, my earlier comment is a tad crazed. I'm for anything that makes people feel good and doesn't hurt anyone.

Mary, I don't know what's crazed about it. There's nothing "progressive" about supporting abstinence-only sex ed.

Crazed only in the sense that it's a waste of my time to scream at Lee here where he can't hear me!

It's interesting that the Navy suspended their normal federal law naming rules for their final Seawolf Class submarine. The "USS Jimmy Carter" (SSN-23) bears the name of the only president to have served on a submarine. Remarks at the ceremony were delivered by Carter's Director of Central Intelligence and Naval Academy Classmate ('46), ADM Stansfield Turner. Navy types will tell you that neither man is at all popular within the Navy, but yet, Carter now has a ship named for him while he is alive. And by the way, he's "still going strong" as what some believe is the "best former president" that we have ever had.

Good example, Fred. If the proposal had been to name the White House or Capitol for Carter (more comparable to our situation), how loud would the voices of protest and derision have been?

False strawman. I don't think that you could even form a strong enough consensus to name the two buildings for any person.

What matters in my opinion is that there is a procedure flexible enough to handle the special circumstance. Remember why the Town Council made the language change in the first place?

Sorry, Fred. If there's a straw man in the room, you invited him. Naming a sub for Carter is like naming a bus for Lee.

My column raised the question as to the "extraordinary circumstance" (as stipulated in the Council rule) that would apply to naming the building for the still-living Lee. No one has answered that except to say that Lee has historic mportance. But that can't be the "extraordinary" circumstance since the ordinary circumstance for naming a building for someone is their historic importance.

LOL! a $3.2 billion bus! I see it as more equivelent than you do, but that's no surpuise to either of us.

I see that the “extraordinary circumstance” is related to changing the building's address to relfect the road that will be named for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

I don't get the connection, particularly not in terms timing.

CHN reported:

Naming Town Hall for Howard and Lillian Lee, if it's approved, will not coincide with the renaming of Airport Road for Martin Luther King Jr., as originally had been proposed. Mayor Pro-Tem Edith Wiggins made that clear Monday night, saying she had heard concerns that the Town Hall naming would detract from the May 8 festivities planned to unveil Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Wiggins told the Herald "It's been in my mind for a long time."

"But that can't be the “extraordinary” circumstance since the ordinary circumstance for naming a building for someone is their historic importance."

Would this be the only "ordinary" circumstance under which a building could be named? Is this ordinary circumstance specifically spelled out in the procedures manual? It looks like you just made more work for the council. Not only do they have to define "extraordinary circumstances", now they have to figure out what "ordinary circumstances" are. Who's going to volunteer to be on that committee?

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Surely this is true for the Town Council, for regulations and policies as well as for words.

if a rule has no meaning then we should dispense with it. If it has meaning, we should know what it is.

You are most correct: one can hardly understand the extraordinary without knowing the ordinary. Or is it vice versa?

Donna is being too kind. Frankly, Dan, your logic is tortured -- if it was a snake, it would be eating its own tail about now.

So please spare us the disingenuous arguments about rules and regulations, and tell us what what is *really* bugging you -- ie, Howard Lee is not progressive enough in your opinion to deserve such an honor.

Others on this blog have openly stated such an opinion, and while I don't agree with them, I *do* respect their forthrightness. You should give it a try too.

Actually, my logic is quite clear. Since you want to ignore it, I suppose I must restate it: if the Council has a rule, that rule ought to be addressed when relevant cases arise.

It is sad that, unable to make effective argument against my actual position, you must seek to invent one for me. In fact, I am quite adept at inventing my own positions and am even paid (if only a pittance) to do so on a weekly basis.

Rest assured, there is no hidden message or agenda in anything I've written above.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting. Fred Black says the timing is important because of the Airport Road renaming but so far declines to explain how. Edith Wiggins says she'd just been thinking about it for a while and that there's not really a connection. If Edith has further elaboration, I'm sure she knows how to contribute to this discussion.

I don't believe that I ever said the timing was intended to be a "package." Review the debate over renaming Airport Road and the comments from people suggesting that we ought to name some things for people who had made historic contributions to Chapel Hill. Are there any other buildings currently on Airport Road that can be appropriately named for deserving citizens?

When I say “extraordinary circumstance,” I am talking about the Town Council policy for naming things for people still living. I see a building eventually named for the Lees on a road named for Dr. King as something special for our Town.

Remember why this language was written in the first place? It was not to ever preclude naming things for people still alive.

Let's just be honost: anything done for certain people in the way of an honor will be disliked by some other people, but the patterns here are amazingly clear.

Thanks, Fred. I note that there is nothing in your comment to suggest that the renaming for the Lees is more appropriate now than it was at any time in the recent past or in the future.

If you check both the committee and Council recommendations, you will find that there are about a dozen recommendations that are moving forward. None of them involve additional renamings (not that they preclude them). People brought up lots of things in the debate last year that did not move forward.

I don't think it does any credit to the Lees for their friends, neighbors, and supporters to make paranoid suggestions as to the motives of others. Certainly the nastiness of some is a disservice to them and uncalled for in the context of an effort to honor them.

Howard Lee knows more about the processes of government than any of us. Does he think the Council should: a) ignore its rule (as some on this thread seem to desire), b) remove the rule from the procedures manual, or c) follow the rule, clarifying why and if an 'exceptional circumstance' arises in this case?

Unless Fred, Cecil, and Dan have any additional information or NEW points to make, may I suggest that you agree to disagree about this issue? It won't be the first or the last time that we don't have a community consensus in Chapel Hill.


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