Henry Frye is an accomplished public servant and a model for African American leadership in North Carolina. He was the first African American Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court after serving in the legislature for 14 years. Though many advocates for voting rights took an activist approach, Frye instead joined the institutions and worked for change from the inside. Throughout this interview, he showed a faith in institutions that sets him apart from many activists in the story of voting rights.
Frye’s career experiences put him in a unique position to talk to the history of voting rights, but he also has lived this history. Frye attempted to register to vote in his hometown in 1956 on the day of his wedding. As is well documented, he was asked a series of specific questions and was turned away when he didn’t know the answers, even though this was not a legal requirement of registration. Frye, a law student at the time, knew very well that this was not in fact what he needed to do. What makes Frye’s story so shocking is the conversation he had with the registrar. Since Frye had just moved back to his hometown, he confirmed with the registrar that he did in fact live in North Carolina. Not only did the registrar know Frye lived in North Carolina, he said he knew his parents and knew that he was studying law at UNC at the time. As Frye told us, at that moment he thought to himself, “If you know all that, and you are gonna turn me down, I don’t believe you let many black folks register to vote in this area.”
This led to a passion for voting rights that Frye still carries today. But what separates Frye from so many others of his generation is how he chose to go about working to open up voting. This is especially true because during the Civil Rights Movement he lived in Greensboro, which was a hotbed for activism through protest. Frye talked to those involved and encouraged what they were doing, but did not actively participate in protests. As he noted in his interview, some people criticized him for not being as active as they feel he should have been.
But he looked at it differently. When asked if he saw himself as an activist, he describes his form of activism as, “more quietly and more behind the scenes and conferring with people about how to get things done that they wanted to do at that particular time.”
This ideology is exemplified by his leadership in the legislature on removing the literacy test. He worked within the institution to get this done, calling each member of the legislature to discuss their vote, understanding the politics of committee designations in the Senate, and debating it on the floor. He focused in on the issue of voting, spearheaded an effort to pass important legislation on the issue, and made an impact on access to voting throughout his time in the government.
This ideology of change through institutions carries through to Frye’s view on the issues today surrounding H.B. 589. When discussing the court challenge to the bill, Justice Frye explains that he did not write a brief or talk publically about the case because he has respect for the weight of his position as a former court member and he does not want to misuse it. He shows deference to the court and faith that they will make the right decision, stating, “sometimes there are very tough decisions that need to be made and hopefully we have the right people on there.”
In all, Justice Frye has a unique point of view on voting rights not only because he lived the experience and had a long career, but because of the faith he has in the institutions of our country to fix these issues. This does not mean complacency, but rather, working to change from the inside.