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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 >>

Musing on the future of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company

Spaulding reflects on the future of North Carolina Mutual, reading a 1966 speech by the Secretary of Commerce. The speech predicts a bright future for the company, but Spaulding is less sure if it will retain its close ties to the African American community. He places its fortunes in the hands of its leaders and those that need it, and whether these individuals make wise decisions.

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:
Now that a lot of these problems have been faced and conquered and are a thing of the past, in part, that is if one sees the North Carolina Mutual as a creature, to a certain extent, of the Jim Crow world where there were not institutions to give blacks services.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yeah, I know where you're leading; go ahead [Laughter] .
WALTER WEARE:
What's the future of this institution?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Who knows what the future is of any institution? I'll say what John Conner said.
WALTER WEARE:
Secretary of Commerce?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. I was looking at that statement. It was in one of those things I brought down here. He spoke at the luncheon banquet.
WALTER WEARE:
When was this?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
At the dedication of our home office.
WALTER WEARE:
In '66?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. [Searches for document. Spaulding reads.] "The Secretary of Commerce, John Conner, in his address referred to the dedication as a'proud moment to the citizens of Durham, for North Carolinians, for Southerners, and for all Americans, especially for our Negro citizens. For we dedicate here today a house that they built. And from the beginning they built their house upon a rock.' The Secretary continued, ‘This great company has been tested. It has weathered two World Wars, a major Depression (when a lot of white companies failed, when the banks were closed by Roosevelt; only two banks re-opened in Durham, and Mechanics and Farmers bank was one of them; and other whites had to be reorganized), numerous recessions, and worst of all prejudices and discrimination as ancient as civilization itself. It not only has weathered every storm and overcome every handicap, each time it has emerged stronger than ever. It was built through the faith of the policyholders, no less than through the faith of the active workers in this organization.’ Secretary Conner concluded, ‘So we meet here today to honor those who are serving their fellow men and the nation through this great business organization. When there was little opportunity, they made opportunity; when there was little hope in the world, the found abundant hope in their hearts; when there was little faith in their ability, they developed faith in themselves. These people and this company are a symbol for all the world of what free men in free institutions can do in a free and democratic society. They have added not only to the stature of America in the world community of nations, they have added to the stature of the human race. Man can stand taller for their actions."’ Now unless we are ready and willing to admit that the present generation of leadership at North Carolina Mutual are less competent than their predecessors, then we have no cause to have great concern about its inability to weather the storms of the future. I know that situations are different and all. But none of the people who organized it knew anything about life insurance. People were predicting that the company would fail. And it would have failed in that first year, had these three men not taken the money out of their pocket to pay that first claim. The crisis came. Because their integrity, their determination, and all of the other adjectives you want to use, was such that they were not going to betray the confidence of their policyholder by failing to pay that beneficiary. And that was a turning point in this company. I don't know whether it was my last report to policyholders, or the one before that, that I referred to the fact that North Carolina Mutual had to make brick without straw. But they did it. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, if you have the kind of people with it. Whether or not future generations are willing to make the sacrifices. See, one thing about North Carolina Mutual, and the attitude of the generations that have gone before, they were more interested in building an institution than they were in building themselves. The question might be raised whether or not we find much of that attitude today, or whether everybody wants to get rich quick. Up until through my administration, we always bragged of the fact that North Carolina Mutual had never made any millionaires. Some mutual company people tried to encourage some of them earlier, or raise the question why they didn't have a stock company. Lookat the surplus. That fifteen or twenty million dollar surplus—whatever it is—a few stock holders would own it. But the officers and directors of North Carolina Mutual don't own any more of that surplus than any other policyholder does, in proportion to the amount of insurance they have. Now whether or not, in this kind of age, that those who are entrusted with the safe-keeping of this institution—they have better education; they've been to better schools; many barriers have been knocked down; a lot of blood, sweat, and tears has been put into that.
WALTER WEARE:
But isn't that the point, if the barriers are no longer there, if one no longer has to be up against it, is it possible to keep that same level of dedication?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well the thing about it is, if you have the stuff in you to want to build, to build for people. But if you're thinking only in terms of yourself, no, you're not going to do it. And I can't foretell whether they're going to do it. I think they have as good an opportunity—and it should be better—to survive some of the things that those who'd gone before had to come through.
WALTER WEARE:
But isn't there kind of a dilemma? If America changes so that race becomes less an issue?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, if race becomes less an issue, why shouldn't North Carolina Mutual have more white policyholders?
WALTER WEARE:
Then at some point it would lose its ethnic identity?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Well, now, you were talking about would it survive as a company. Whether it will survive as it is ethnically, I can't give you an answer to that.
WALTER WEARE:
I was thinking about this interesting situation with the black colleges in North Carolina. Do you see any parallel in that?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
That's what I don't know. There's a stage in history for everything as it is. And as those stages change, it no longer serves a purpose. Some organizations that were ever so essential during their day and time, and probably without them, you'd have a different civilization than you have now. There have been many times when the question has been raised on whether the NAACP had served its usefulness, its day and generation. But the NAACP still seems to find something to do, although it's had more difficulty getting financed. As far as the need for its services, it still seems to be. And the same thing with the Urban League. If I could believe that people are innately good, and always strive for the higher good, and that the majority was going to do that, I would have one view. But I find, as I go back through history, and look at the number of people being killed in Iran today, and how Idi Amin's atrocities are there, I agree with the man who said, "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless millions mourn." Human nature, does it change that much? We put on a certain veneer in our civilization and all, but when the chips are down, when a person is threatened, what do they do? Go right back to that beast.
WALTER WEARE:
So you think that the Mutual is kind of a social institution among things like the Urban League and NAACP that will have to be evervigilant?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
You've got to justify your position. And I don't know but that's how it should be. If you can't justify your existence, what are we here for? To make a contribution? I see two kinds of religion that people can have, only two. One is the rake religion and the other's the pitchfork religion. The person who is raking everything to himself is self-centered. Me and my wife, my son, John, and his wife, us four and no more; it doesn't matter what happens to anybody else. And the other is willing to share. He's willing to scatter, and it'll come back to him after many days. And I think not just in North Carolina Mutual is it concerned about its future. I think any institution that can't justify its existence. I know that's probably not the kind of answer you want, but I don't know any better answer to give you. Because really, I think what happens to North Carolina Mutual is going to be determined as much by the kind of leadership it has, as the kind of circumstances with which it's confronted. You know they had a picture on Broadway, a stage play. I didn't get to see it; I was on my way to another and happened to see it up on the marquis: "Don't bother me I can't cope." Well now, I've never been a person to feel that I can't cope. And if I had been, there would have been many times when I'd have just thrown in the towel. Because anyone who has a defeatist attitude, he's defeated before he begins.
WALTER WEARE:
And yet you're not too optimistic about the future, are you?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yes. I'm optimistic about the future. Because I look back over civilizations. And I think I mentioned this: a lecture at the University of Michigan. If you draw a chart, you'll find that whether it's in the economy or in civilizations or what, it moves in waves, ups and downs. Sometimes it's pretty steep, you know, and all. But if you draw a curve through those waves, as I see it, it's constantly moving upward rather than downward. We have a more humane society today than we had hundreds of years ago. We didn't have Social Security; we had county homes or poor houses. We didn't have social services; we didn't have a lot of things that we have. Despite all of man's meanness and all of his cruelty and everything else, he's constantly striving for something better. And I think there are forces at work that make that thing so. You can oppress and suppress for a period, but sooner or later the cries of the oppressed are going to be heard by somebody. And that was driven home to me more clearly when I stood on Red Square in Moscow and was told the story of the peasants. All they were asking for was a little lightening of their burdens. And instead of listening to their petition or anything, the order was given by the czar to shoot them down. And they were just massacred; blood ran all over that Red Square there. And before it was all over, he had to leave in a nurse's outfit to escape. Well you see, what happened, this thing was building up, building up, building up, and therefore it gave them an opportunity for a cause. What did he have, other than an appeal to a suppressed people, an oppressed people? And Friday, you know, I think we were talking about Iran, and the Shah and all of his army, his elite army, his billions of dollars, his power. Three years ago, if anyone had told you that a bearded-faced man with no army or anything could topple that dynasty, would you have believed it? I know I wouldn't have.
WALTER WEARE:
The United States government didn't believe it.
ASA T. SPAULDING:
So when it comes to this matter, after all. The downfall of people and nations is caused by their own doings.