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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with L. M. Wright Jr., April 1, 1974. Interview A-0333-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Changing role of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce

Wright discusses the changing role of the Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte politics during the 1950s and 1960s. According to Wright, the Chamber used to stand at the center of political power, but had dwindled in prominence. In addition to outlining some of the reasons behind the shifting power structure, Wright also focuses on how particular individuals were indicative of the relationship between economy and politics in the local context.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with L. M. Wright Jr., April 1, 1974. Interview A-0333-1. 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

WILLIAM MOYE:
I'd like to go back a little bit and discuss some of sort of the contending groups or organizations that might be involved. I was sort of intrigued by your comment about how at that time the Chamber was the dominant organization, but it no longer is. I was wondering why that may be so, or what interests the Chamber now…
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
In the 1950's and into the very early 1960's, it was frequently said that it was more important, in terms of civic accomplishment, for a leading businessman or anyone who wished to be an outstanding citizen in Charlotte, it was frequently said that it was more important to be president of the Chamber of Commerce than it was to be mayor. I think that in some ways, that was true. There is still, with a slight exception, here and there, and we could probably name them in both the courthouse and the city hall, elected officials in Charlotte, - the members of the power structure are not elected officials in that town. Now, clearly, John Belk is an exception. You probably could argue that Milton Short is. But now, his lineage goes back to his father and the Mecklenburg Furniture Industries and, you know, they've been an old Charlotte family…
WILLIAM MOYE:
He's running for Congress.
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
Same one, right. He's a member now, of the city council. I think it would be fair to say that no one else on that council is a member of the power structure of that city. Now, they are within their own rights politically powerful. Probably Jim Whittington is politically as powerful as anybody there. But he is not a member of the power structure in any other context at all. Certainly not in the business community. He's an undertaker, has limited personal resources. You know, in some circles, he's regarded as too much of a politican by a lot of people. I know Jim very well, like him, as a matter of fact. I've known him for years. But he just isn't there. I guess…well, Bill Harris, the Chairman of the County Commissioners, is a member of the power structure.
WILLIAM MOYE:
Let me ask you…I've come across a James J. Harris. Now is this some of the same…
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
No.
WILLIAM MOYE:
This is a different one?
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
Yeah. W.T. Harris is Bill Harris. He is the Harris of Harris-Teeter Supermarkets. To my knowledge, not any relation to James J. Harris. James J. Harris is Cameron Morrison's son-in-law. Harris married her a number of years ago and they own or did own, major portions of the land in and around the South Park Shopping Center. As well as other pieces of property all over town. One of their more recent investments was to buy the Wachovia Bank Building. So, there's a good bit of money there. They are into the factoring business for retail establishments and primarily in textiles for manufactorers. That kind of thing, so it's a fairly large fiscal operation that doesn't show up very well on the surface.
WILLIAM MOYE:
When you say power structure, how would you define this? Is this mainly business interests, downtown business interests…
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
Well, it was downtown business interests for a long time, I don't mean that you literally have to have a store front on Tryon Street. But the Belks, the Iveys, the principals in the banks, more before 1960 than after, because the principals in the banks prior to that time, before all the banks started merging, tended to be local citizens who had their roots there. You know, we could talk about various kinds of influences on a city like Charlotte. I think there are two or three kinds of influences that are crucial to what has happened to Charlotte in the last fifteen years or so. And also you need to look at Charlotte in terms of what it is. Charlotte doesn't make anything, and if you analyze it from one point of view, it is an information exchange factory. The schools are the largest employers. The Southern Bell Telephone Company, the last time I looked at the figures, is the second largest employer. Not only for local service, but everyone's t.v. cable runs through that huge building down there on Fifth Street. Well, the newspapers, which are not normally massive employers even in large cities, are among the top twenty employers and those newspapers fan out over two states and serve essentially the same base that Charlotte serves for its wholesale as well as part of its retail trading area. When the banks started changing, which was not long after the ownership of the newspapers started changing, and I don't want to leave out my own institution, because I think that had an influence as well, it became…well, look at a man like Luther Hodges, Jr. at North Carolina National Bank, now. Under forty, so energetic that he can hardly sit still for fifteen minutes. He is as likely to be in Raleigh today as he is in Charlotte. He's as likely to be in Greensboro tomorrow as he is in Charlotte.
WILLIAM MOYE:
Do you see something of a passing to younger people?
L. M. WRIGHT, JR.:
And a broadening of their business base, and therefore, of their concept of community.