Mickey Michaux might not have become the longest-serving Member of the N.C. General Assembly but for a nudge from a friend – Martin Luther King Jr.
“I remember one night, Martin said, ‘you know Mickey you’d make a pretty good politician’,” Michaux said. “I said ‘Martin, you’re out of your mind’.”
But time proved King right. Michaux became the first African-American United States Attorney in North Carolina since Reconstruction and one of the state’s first African-American legislators, ultimately serving 40 years in the House of Representatives.
Born and raised in Durham, Michaux grew up in a segregated society, receiving hand-me down textbooks from the white schools and seeing “colored only” signs through town.
“I tell folks that I was very disappointed when my mother took me downtown and you had two water fountains and I thought colored water was Kool-Aid,” he said. “But when I turned it on, it turned out to be the same color as the other water.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in economics from North Carolina Central University in 1952 he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His assignment in the medical corps sparked an interest in becoming a physician.
Following his discharge, he did graduate work at Rutgers University in physiology and biochemistry before being accepted into medical school in 1955. After evaluating the costs and time, he opted instead for law school as preparation for joining his father’s businesses and enrolled at NCCU in 1962, the same year he helped picket a local restaurant which refused to serve ice cream to African-Americans.
Michaux had been a long-time supporter of the civil rights movement and a believer in mass action. He had met King in 1956 after inviting him to speak at a program for the Black Chamber of Commerce. They became friends, and King took Michaux under his wing, inviting him to several marches, including the March On Washington and Selma.
In 1964 Michaux graduated from law school and, heeding his friend’s encouragement, ran for the State House. He lost by 120 votes. Subsequent defeats in 1966 and 1968, as well as King’s assassination, temporarily discouraged him from further campaigns.
In 1972, Michaux ran again and, this time, he won, joining Henry Frye (elected in 1968) and Joy J. Johnson (elected in 1970) as the first African-Americans elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction.
“Joy was the hellraiser. I was the rebel and Henry was the peacemaker,” Michaux said “That’s the game we played and that’s where we got bills passed.”
One of the first bills he sponsored expanded opportunities for voter registration drives. Previously, a registrar from the local Board of Elections had to be onsite to register new voters. But most registrars wouldn’t go to black neighborhoods, Michaux said. His bill permitted anyone to pick up a registration card and take it to the Board of Elections.
Throughout his legislative tenure, Michaux developed a strong reputation as an unapologetic and effective champion of voting rights, health care, the state’s historically black universities, and minority economic development.
In recognition of his untiring work, in 2007 NCCU named its School of Education in his honor.
Michaux left the Legislature in 1977, accepting an appointment by President Jimmy Carter as the United States Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. He stepped down in 1981, six months beyond the end of the Carter Administration. In 1982, he was the leading vote-getter in the Democratic primary for Congress but was defeated in a runoff. He was re-elected to the General Assembly in 1984 and served until his retirement in 2018.
In retirement, Michaux continues to be one of the state’s leading voices in the cause of civil rights and is creating a foundation to help achieve the goal of equality.
“People are equal, despite the differences they have, and the way they look,” he said. “They’re all equal.”