William Friday: A Place in History

The Racial Divide - War Time - The Fight for Free Speech - The Great Depression

The Dawn of Public Television - The New Look of Education

Periods in William Friday's life touched on many of the major issues that they nation faced over the years: segregation, war, Communism, the Depression, broadcast television, and education. The following will put Mr. Friday's life in the context of issues the nation was encountering at the time.

The Racial Divide (1930-1980)
The race issues that William Friday faced as a youngster growing up in rural North Carolina would resonate with him throughout his school years, in the military and even later during his University presidency. Growing up in the segregated South, Friday admits there were unspoken "rules" in his relationships with his African American counterparts.

When Friday was 14 years old in Dallas, NC he experienced his first taste of racial segregation on the baseball field. "Some of the best friends I have and had [are African American]. But there was a line that nobody would cross, and you knew it, you felt it, you knew it was wrong, but it was not in the culture at that time to absorb a change. But you know it when you are that young, and you know that it is doing something that has to change…Sometimes we are more motivated by what we feel than by what we know," says Friday.

From the 1880s into the 1960s, a majority of American states enforced segregation through Jim Crow laws. From Delaware to California, and from North Dakota to Texas, many states could impose legal punishments for consorting with members of another race. The most common types of these laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated.

This segregation followed Friday into wartime. Because the Navy had long been segregated upon Friday's arrival at the Naval Ammunitions Depot at St. Julien's Creek in Norfolk, VA, Friday faced a similar discomfort with the incongruity in treatment between the white servicemen and those of other color. Because of his engineering degree, he was quickly promoted to plant operations manager, forcing him into the tense role of constantly supervising a dangerous environment for both himself and his men of all races.
Friday says of this time: "I tried never to take advantage because I was white. I was always trying to pull people in. Pull them up, lift them up."

Shortly after the war ended, in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court rules that "separate but equal" has no place in education and is unconstitutional in 1954. Two years later, Friday would become acting President of the University System and face three decades of racial issues.

Friday reflects, "after World War II and the minute the Brown decision occurred I knew that part of life was over. I think our part of the country has probably dealt with that issue much more wisely than any other part of the United States. They didn't expect it to happen that way but it did. I think that is to the credit of thoughtfulness."

In December of 1968, the newly formed Black Student Movement presented a list of demands to the UNC administration. Ultimately the students staged a sit-in at Lenoir Hall, and Governor Bob Scott offered to intervene, a proposal, which Friday rejected. However, the next day, Friday came to campus to find state troopers on campus. Friday described his reaction to their presence and the ultimate resolution of the protest as "the only time that [the Governor] and I ever really had a confrontation."

After a meteoric rise to the presidency of the university system, Friday 's experiences both growing up and in service motivated him towards creating racial equities. From 1969-1981, Friday worked diligently with university affairs to desegregate the universities while maintaining the traditionally black colleges. During this racially-charged time, Friday's opinions were both unpopular and sparked much criticism, but he maintains that the balance in education helped both to improve the educational environment in all schools, while helping historically-black colleges to keep their sense of culture. Of this time Friday says, "that was eleven years of a controversy that should have never have taken place in the first place."

War Time
In 1942, despite lacking ROTC experience, Bill Friday, like many of his peers motivated by the Pearl Harbor attacks to serve their country, applied for and received a commission for the navy in the spring. In May 1942, like many young soldiers called into action for their country William Friday quickly married his college sweetheart, Ida Howell prior to his tour. Later that year, Friday began work at the Naval Ammunitions Depot at St. Julien's Creek in Norfolk, VA. Because of his engineering degree, he was promoted to plant operations manager, forcing him into the tense role of constantly supervising a dangerous environment for both himself and his men.

For many men, these assignments meant leading squads of men into dangerous areas at the ripe young age of 22 or 23. About the dangerous work, Friday reflects, "I was scared to death. Here the captain lined all these new officers up and said, "what did you do, what did you do?" and he took one pace forward and he said, "Where did you go to school?" And I told him and he said, "stand aside." I knew that meant trouble. What happened to me was that we were this production facility that had to run seven days a weeks, 24 hours a day. 550 of these highly skilled, highly seasoned civil service employees were in this division and our job was to be sure that all of this moved, and that was a big order when you are dealing with things like black powder and petrol. You knew something about chemistry but you didn't have enough time to learn. You just went and did it."

Racial segregation followed Friday into the Navy as well. Friday watched as African -American soldiers were brought in to be "ammunition handlers". Not only were Black soldiers relegated to separate encampments, they were also prevented from being apart of any entertainment. Any insurrections meant that Black officers would be shipped out overseas closer to battle.

Like many men either on the front lines or working domestically, the precautions of war meant a complete change in lifestyle. "Eventually we were assigned quarters at the base. Right across, not 10 yards, from our front door was this magazine that had 500 tons of high explosives in it all the time. You never strike a match, you wore static proof clothing, you were terribly conscious of fire 24 hours a day and you never ever let up thinking about it. You never carried matches anywhere."

A mere 7 days after being discharged from the Navy in 1946, William Friday moved to Chapel Hill with wife Ida to attend Law School at the University of North Carolina. The flood of veterans into universities at this time led to an "unconventional student bodies" and what fellow veteran Terry Sanford called "an entirely different kind of campus." While all veterans, including Friday, were determined to get on with their lives, the harsh memories remained. As William Friday reflects back to this time at age 81, he still clearly holds many of these experiences close to heart.

"I can remember when I got to law school, seven days after mustering out of service, anytime when anybody would light up a cigarette I would feel myself jumping about that high. Just a reflex reaction until it wore off. It took at least a year to get over that sensitivity. We had 5,000 people doing this and we were dealing in highly secret things during the end such as special fuses and things and it was nerve wracking. Being conditioned helped to come through the Depression and other things. You could take it, you could absorb it. You always said I am here and not out there on the front. You are grateful for the opportunity to serve this way but you were always conscious of the fact that you were living with instant explosiveness." In more ways than one.

The Fight for Free Speech (1960's)
During Gastonia's Loray strike in 1929, Communist-led National Textile Workers' Union unsuccessfully attempted to unionize Gastonia's largest mill. Both William Friday and his father saw the strike as a "pivotal event," hardening lines against unions, but the younger Friday would later take his impressions of this experience with him into University administration, publicly defending the striking workers and the freedom of speech that they hold.

"Free speech" became something of a tough sell in the turbulent '60s when communism really seemed a threat bringing about a national debate as to whether communists should be allowed to speak on college campuses.

The Speaker Ban Law, enacted by the legislature in 1963 as the first measure of its kind in North Carolina to prohibit communists to speak on campus, became one of the first major challenges during Friday's presidency. Throughout his tenure, Friday battled diligently to get the Speaker Ban Law stricken from the University life. "I always felt that freedom is the basic lesson you have to teach every student," says Friday. Friday campaigned against the Speaker Ban Law and finally had to initiate a lawsuit to get the ban repealed in 1968.

The same year, during Richard M. Nixon's Presidential acceptance speech, he spoke of the widespread division existent within the American society, and pledged his support in the attempt to unify the country. Student activism became the norm, as campus groups vocalized the deficiencies they perceived in the American system: racism, pollution, capitalism, imperialism, and the most serious anomaly, the war in Vietnam.

On May 4, 1970, four students were killed on the campus of Kent State, marking an event where the most American students were killed in one incident (4), and the only incident where women were killed (2). What followed the Kent State massacre was a unprecedented national outpouring of anger and the only national student strike that went on to change the course of American history.

"Any institution that believes in student government in the sense of responsibility and freedom is going to be an institution that doesn't commit criminal acts." And I believe to this day that the reason Chapel Hill went through this experience so wonderfully was just that fact, to be free means you must act responsibly. No self-respecting university can call itself a first rate educational institution without the right of free expression. " -William Friday, Biographical Conversations with William Friday.

The Great Depression (1930's)
The full impact of the Great Depression occurred around the time William Friday began his teenage years, indelibly affecting his childhood in the same ways as this era changed all Americans. As William Link wrote in his biography of Friday, "the loss of jobs and ensuing hardship created what Friday described as a 'poverty of spirit'."

This 'poverty of spirit' meant hard times for townspeople and rural citizens alike. With the textile industry reaching a standstill, the Depression caused William Friday's family to face a precarious financial situation from their hometown in rural Dallas, NC.

As many young people did during these hard times, William Friday took up several jobs to contribute to his family's income. Instead of spending leisurely summers swimming at a local watering hole or taking a lengthy vacation, this eldest sibling spent his weekdays delivering newspapers and his weekends working in his father's Gastonia textile machine shop.

"I remember vividly my classmate sitting next to me would come to school, and the night before he had taken abandoned grocery bags, and he would tear the walls of them out, and they became his notepaper. That's how poor some of us were. You suddenly realize there is nobody else any better off than you are. It was a time full of enthusiasm because people felt, "Well, the country's going to go now, we are going to turn around." But Depression leaves a scar, it really does. You learn that you can do without. But the great thing about it is you come out of that, and I think our country in those days showed a resilience that had never been tested before. But as you can see, all through my life and out of that experience I've been very sensitive to people who were poor and did without. you don't like to see people suffer, you don't like to see people hungry. But when you do, you don't forget it, and that was a part of my life that led me straight into the work that I have been so glad to have the chance to do in literacy and poverty and health movements that have had a really deep meaning for me.'' - William Friday, Biographical Conversations with William Friday.

The Dawn of Public Television (1950's)
Public television in America has witnessed a fascinating national evolution from its inauspicious roots in the 1950s. Even before televisions were in the available in large quantities for public consumption across the country, William Friday worked diligently alongside Billy Carmichael and UNC President Gordon Gray to convince skeptical sponsors that North Carolina public television could be a success and a benefit to the entire state.

Friday says of this experience, "Billy [Carmichael] he devised this book showing towers and how we were going to transmit signals all over the state. We raised a million dollars. He did. I just drove the car and carried the book lots of times, you know, to get people like John Motley Morehead, William Rand Kenan to get interested in public television. They almost look at you and say, "What are you talking about?" But it was the faith they had in him, because here was a man whose life was just totally given to the University."

Just a few years after Iowa State College launches WOI, first TV station owned by educational institution, WUNC-TV began operations with the initial broadcast of a UNC and Wake Forest basketball game, kicking off what is now the University of North Carolina's statewide public television network, UNC-TV.

Alongside the debut of Masterpiece Theatre and the first broadcast of National Public Radio, William Friday's very own television interview show, NC People debuts on UNC-TV in 1971. In addition to his three decades as university president, William Friday has spent the last 30 years with NC People interviewing over 1500 North Carolinians.

Today, NC People still airs a new episode every week and UNC-TV has become an integral part of North Carolina in large part because of Friday's commitment to education and broadcasting in the Tar Heel State. UNC-TV's commitment to educate, enrich and inform all North Carolinians has never wavered since its transmitting facility south of Chapel Hill (WUNC-TV/Channel 4) signed on January 8, 1954 becoming the state's pioneering public television link.

"I'm so grateful for the way the public supports public television now. It was a mystery to begin with, it was something that nobody felt was worthy, and now it one of the big things in the state. That responsiveness is what makes it so vital to North Carolina." - William Friday, Biographical Conversations with William Friday.

Education: The New Look of Education
When UNC consolidated in 1931, joining together State College, the women's college of Greensboro and the Chapel Hill campus, William Friday was beginning to learn leadership skills on his grade school basketball team that he would later use make the University of North Carolina one of the largest university systems in the country. Throughout his childhood and on into his young adulthood, Friday would learn the lessons that would help him lead the university administration through athletic scandals, racial tensions, political opposition, and financial distress.

In 1964, under the guise of President Lyndon Johnson, John Gardner and William Friday established the White House Fellows program, a program that allowed college students to work in assistantship positions with the President of the United States. Soon after, Gardner offered Friday a position as assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare that Friday refused, a decision he later regretted.

In the years surrounding the Vietnam War, university enrollments swell as young Americans take advantage of draft deferrals for college students to escape the expanding war in Vietnam. Not only does this add to the responsibilities of Friday and University Presidents across the country, but the social environment of the mid-60's led campuses to be tense with unrest.

Despite the fact that many U.S. colleges would close down due to anti-war protests, during the years of 1967 through 1971, Friday becomes involved in the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education leading to two other major achievements in North Carolina's educational history: gaining more federal funding for student aid in Pell Grants and establishing the Area Health Education Centers. In addition, he influences the National Humanities Center's decision to locate their offices in Research Triangle Park, increasing the scope of North Carolina's research mecca.

The new consolidated sixteen-campus system of the University of North Carolina was inaugurated in July 1972, becoming the capstone of Friday's presidency.

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