Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 16, 1979. Interview C-0013-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The demise of Spaulding's 1971 mayoral campaign

Spaulding remembers his unsuccessful 1971 effort to win the mayoralty in Durham, North Carolina. Spaulding, who a decade before had retired from the presidency of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, faced a white opponent who ran damaging racist ads shortly before election day. These ads, and some strategic miscalculations, doomed Spaulding's campaign, but he retained a good deal of support in the community. He decided to pass on a second attempt on his doctor's suggestion.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 16, 1979. Interview C-0013-3. 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

WALTER WEARE:
In the mayoral campaign were there wide and deep differences in the black community over that?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No. I think the only situation there—and I'm guessing, which I don't like to do, because you can do an injustice to people. But I think the people whose full support I did not get was because of their allegiance to Hawkins and commitments to him before I became a candidate.
WALTER WEARE:
This is in the black community?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
That's right. Because I got very good support on the whole, from the black community. And with him getting white votes, how could I have beat him by twenty-six votes in the primary? And he was so disappointed that he didn't come to election headquarters that night.
WALTER WEARE:
After the primary?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
After the election at the primary. See, all the candidates usually meet there and have statements to make. He didn't come to make any statement. It was such a surprise to him, I guess. And the campaign for the primary was kept on a high level. If there was any race issue injected into it, I never heard of it. It didn't surface.
WALTER WEARE:
The fact that he didn't show up, did you ever think deep down that he was capable of that? And we left off talking about this sour note in the closing hours of the general campaign where race did apparently become something of an issue.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. Well, who injected it or why, but I do know it came out over the radio, three radio stations. "Black millionaire running a close race against a white realtor." And the UPI definitely told me, because I contacted them, they said well they were running it because they "thought it was authentic, that it was true." Because the information came to them from Durham. And I had them all to recant it, but it was at least six o'clock before they recanted it. The damage had been done then.
WALTER WEARE:
As you look back on it, do you think that made the difference in the outcome of the election?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
I'm pretty sure it did. Because people are still telling me they're sorry I didn't win. And some of the people who went to the beach and went fishing that Saturday said they were "so sure that I was going to win that they didn't stay here to vote." And when they came back and heard what the returns were, they really "felt like kicking themselves." And these were white people telling me this. They just felt that I was going to win. Whether that's true, or whether it wasn't I have no way of judging. But these were things that were unsolicited by me, and I didn't even know. Because they were not people that I asked, "Did you vote for me?" They just came back and by their own confession, they were surprised and disappointed.
WALTER WEARE:
Was there any other evidence of something being injected into the campaign up to this point?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No. I think it was Wednesday before I found out how much was going on, and how many places he was going to campaign, or those who were working for him were going to campaign. I told you about East Durham, down here, where I got a call as to what was happening down there. And I know that I did not go back to the tobacco factories between the primary and the election. And I know that he and his workers did go back. Either he and his workers, or he or his workers, because I was told.
WALTER WEARE:
You think that could have made a difference?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
It could have made a difference. Because, you know, voters, they feel that if you want their vote, you ought to pay them some attention. And then, a voter can feel that, "Well, he's got it made." I don't know whether they felt that way or not. But you never know what's in a voter's mind.
WALTER WEARE:
If you had to do it over, do you think that was a tactical problem?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Oh, there were things I recognized as weaknesses in what I did between the primary and the election. I could have improved a great deal.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you have any regrets about not winning?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No, because after people came back afterwards, about how sorry they were, and whether or not I was going to run again. I said, "You've had one chance to vote for me, and see what happens. Why should I consider running again?" And another thing: some people also—because I definitely had some people whose word I trusted, especially some of the white voters—said they really wanted me to stay on the Board of County Commissioners. They felt that I was needed there. And that everybody seemed to be happy with the services I rendered, as evidenced by their vote every time I faced an election, whether it was in the primary or the election. Because I did not resign when I ran for mayor. See, the terms overlapped. The county commissioners were elected in the even years, and members of the city council and the mayor in odd years. So I went on back and completed my term. And then later, though, the thing wouldn't die, and people still kept urging me to run again, and it really was more so than it was for the first time. More people were urging me to run again.
WALTER WEARE:
For the same office?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
For the mayor. And it reached the point where I really considered it. And I had a coupon printed in the paper, raising the question: Should I decide to run for mayor? If you would support me, return this form. And they came from all sections and people. And there was so many, 'til I made up my mind to run. But in the meantime, through a medical checkup, it was determined that I had sugar. And I was put on a diet. And I wrote my physician a letter, to ask him whether or not he would advise me to run or not. [interruption] He had put me on a strict diet.
WALTER WEARE:
This is diabetes?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes, that's right. I was getting along pretty well I thought. But he delayed. He said it bothered him, because he thought if I ran that I would win, and he was afraid that if I did, it might break me down. Because he said he knew what a serious nature I was, and how sincere, and how I took things seriously. This is what he told me afterwards, because I didn't hear from him until I had to call him, because I had to make up my mind, and I couldn't wait any longer, because I had to file the next day. This was on a Sunday that I reached him and asked him for his opinion. He said could he come by and talk with me that afternoon. I think it was around one o'clock or three o'clock, something like that. So he did. He said, "Well, here's why. In the first place, because you are black and would be the first black mayor, you would feel that it was encumbered upon you to solve Durcham's problems." And you know it had its problems. Businesses were moving from downtown and things were going down. And he said, "You wouldn't leave your work at your office; you'd bring it home with you. And I just think that that would be too much and you'd feel, as I said, that being a black mayor, you wouldn't want not to succeed." My wife was sitting in here, right in this room. And I said, "Well, Dr. Johnson, a person's got to die from something. Is there anything bad about dying in service? Couldn't worse things happen?" And he said, "Well, you know, I don't know. If your health failed you and you were incapacitated for the rest of your life, and became a burden on your family, that might be considered." And you know, as I thought about that—because I knew so many people who were in rest homes, [unclear] And I've always said I never wanted to be a burden on anyone—a burden on society or a burden on my family. But he said, "Well now, if that happens, unless you were going to commit suicide, it could be pretty rough." So I said, "Well that's my answer, I won't run." And my wife was so glad. [Laughter] [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 3, SIDE A]
ASA T. SPAULDING:
So that afternoon I wrote a statement to the paper, saying while I was seriously considering being a candidate, upon the advise of my physician, I would not be a candidate for mayor. I took it to the paper that evening, and it came out in the Herald the next morning. Because the filing date was at noon, I think, that day. So that's what kept me from running. I was going to run. I had made up mind I was going to run, because of the kind of urging that I was getting. And people who had not voted for me before. And people still, until now. I said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. At my age now, and you had a chance if you wanted me [Laughter] ." They said, "Well, we've learned a lot since then." Because they haven't been too happy with the kind of leadership that Durham has had. And I did have some ideas in mind. I had established myself well, not only locally, but in the state, and nationally and internationally. And I had contacts that I could've made. Corporate contacts and things of that nature. And I had in mind things that I was going to do, since I was retired and could do it. If I became mayor, I was going to make it a full-time job. And I would be in my office for anyone who had problems—no matter who they were. If they wanted to come and talk with the mayor, they could find me there. Someone that they could talk to. I haven't revealed this to anyone else. And then I had also made up my mind that I would be there at nights, certain nights, so people could see me by appointment—people who were working in the day and wanted to be able to talk with the mayor. They could see me between the hours of seven and nine o'clock at night. And another thing: I was going to take one day, or one afternoon, or sometime during the day, every week to go to some part of the city and talk with the people in that area as to what their problems were.
WALTER WEARE:
This wasn't generally known in the campaign? These were your private ideas?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
These were things that I had made up my mind I was going to do the second time. After I had so many people urging me to do it, and I had made up my mind that I would do it, I began thinking of the things that I would do, and probably the things that would be said during my campaign. And I believe until this day that I could have won.
WALTER WEARE:
Of course if you did those things, your doctor might have been right.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
[Laughter] I believe until this day I could have won.
WALTER WEARE:
What was generally the reaction when you accounced that you wouldn't?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Oh, people expressed their regrets. And a lot of it was hard for me to disabuse even though I gave my reason, which was the reason. I had won in the primary for the third term and withdrew before the election. You know I told you about that because I got these offers from Boston and New York for consulting services. And I knew that if I were going to be a public servant and asked people to support me, I owed it to them to be present to represent them at the meetings, as well as interim. You know, because problems come up between meetings. And that I could serve them. And unless I could do that, it just wasn't fair to the public, to ask them for their support and then let them down. And I knew that this other area offered opportunities to render a larger service and on a broader scale. And between the two that's what I should do. So that's why I did not run in the general election. So that was '68 to '70, '70 to '72. Somehow it seems to me like it was probably '73.
WALTER WEARE:
That you withdrew on the mayoral race?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Because of my doctor's advise.
WALTER WEARE:
Your doctor was the key figure in your deciding not to run. Was there one person who was most influential in moving you to run, both the first time and the second time? Somebody who stands out?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No. Just people on the street would meet me and say it.