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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Despite Lake's anti-desegregation language, state politicians supported his right to free speech

Giles explains how I. Beverly Lake fanned racial tensions. Although Governor Luther Hodges and Attorney General William Rodman Jr. opposed his rabid anti-integrationist rhetoric, they refused to bend to the NAACP's demand to fire Lake. The governor and attorney general argued that Lake was entitled to his First Amendment rights. Giles assesses Lake as a political expedient, using his pro-segregationist fervor for political gain.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. 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

JAMES JENKINS:
I think one thing that maybe ought to be clarified. During this period, based on my conversations with other people, I. Beverly Lake was also on the attorney general's staff. He, of course, took exception and later ran for governor in 1960 and '64 on a largely segregationist platform. What was his role with the Pearsall Commission?
ROBERT GILES:
Well, when I moved from Chapel Hill to Raleigh in August, '55 to be assistant attorney general, initially my office was in the Revenue Building across the street from the Justice Building where the attorney general was. I was there in the suite of rooms assigned to the attorney general. In that suite of rooms we had I. Beverly Lake, who at the time—since he had joined the office when Mr. McMillan was attorney general—had given a lot of attention to utilities cases; Harry McGregor; Sam Barron; and myself. All of us worked some on state tax matters of one sort or the other and on a variety of things. I do not recall then that Lake had any assignment on the attorney general's staff to help us in the school business at the time. He did not, not with the attorney general's office.
JAMES JENKINS:
He was just acting as an individual, individual criticism.
ROBERT GILES:
He began to speak out, made some public speeches, about the school matter. The sum and substance of it was the United States Supreme Court decision was unlawful. The broad implication was that something should be done about it or that the state should not comply. Of course, certain groups would immediately attack Lake. I recall the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP did that. Others, who were what you might term "liberal" on the race issue, would attack him and call upon the governor to fire him. Well, of course, the governor had no legal authority to fire him. He was hired by the attorney general. Then they'd say, "The attorney general should fire him." Well, all of that, as a practical matter, prompted those two officials, the governor and the attorney general, to come out and say, "We, of course, will not be controlled by the NAACP or whoever it is. He is speaking. He has every right to speak his personal opinions," and so on. As a matter of fact, the Attorney General Rodman and the governor were incensed that this fellow was using his state position, in a sense, to stir all this up. So I think later on we had a case, the attorney general's office was handling a case, defending a petition or a suit for a black person to enter the University. This was either at Greensboro or Chapel Hill. The attorney general's job, of course—this was a first time, we had no blacks at those institutions then—was to try to prevail in court so that there wouldn't be a federal court order ordering their admission. I recall talking with Attorney General Rodman on that and on the Lake problem in general. He chuckled and said, "Well, I would like to win this case. I'm quite apprehensive about our chances since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the way it has. I think I ought to get the fellow here in our office who feels the strongest about this matter. His heart is in the right place. I want to find out how good a mind he's got." That's the substance of what he said. "I'm going to assign Beverly and make it clear that we are counting on him to win this case." He followed up with Beverly Lake and made it clear that he was looking to him to handle that case in federal district court and to win it. Well, it wasn't too long thereafter, a matter of just a few weeks or less, that Mr. Lake submitted his resignation as assistant attorney general. In any event, he wasn't around when eventually in due course the federal district court ruled against the state on that application of a black to get into the University.
JAMES JENKINS:
In that connection, I remember Lake made a speech in Asheboro, I believe it was, a real ringing attack on segregation and desegregation and so forth and so on. But the governor's response to these people who said "fire him" and so forth, he said, "He's got a right to speak his piece as an individual." It was widely believed at that time, by the newspaper people anyway, that that position stalled a possible Lake run for the governorship in 1956, if you had a clash. I'm not sure about whether that was true or not, but I think it no doubt blunted the Lake effort.
ROBERT GILES:
Well, I didn't know then and still do not know really what the Lake objective was, or his effort, and whether at the time he had any specific notion of trying to run for governor. I did have the feeling. I never discussed the matter in detail with Mr. Lake, later Justice Lake. Here was an extremely bright and intelligent person, who had been a distinguished professor of law at Wake Forest Law School. He had a graduate law degree, I believe, from Harvard University. He had been known, for whatever reason, to have supported openly Frank Graham in the bitter senatorial race with Willie Smith when race was an issue in that campaign. So I just wondered really what Mr. Lake's convictions really were. I couldn't imagine that a person with his background as a lawyer could seriously think that the state of North Carolina or any other individual state could take on the United States government.
JAMES JENKINS:
With any hope of winning.
ROBERT GILES:
Any hope of winning or getting anything good out of it. I didn't think that he could seriously entertain the notion that there was some sort of legal legerdemain, so to speak, that he could pull out of the hat. I suppose I, along with others, felt that really what was going on was that he was deliberately exploiting the issue for some either specific or undefined political purpose.