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Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies discusses race and politics in North Carolina

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UNC law professor Gene Nichol sits in his office in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall on Feb. 23, 2023. Nichol presented the lecture to the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies and discussed the intersection between race and politics in North Carolina.

On Saturday, members and alumni of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies gathered with campus community members for a lecture presented by UNC law professor Gene Nichol discussing the intersection between race and politics in North Carolina.

Proceeds from the lecture, titled “Race, Politics and the North Carolina General Assembly," went toward a portrait of James Walker Jr., the first Black member of DiPhi. The portrait would be the first addition to the organization's collection in almost 50 years.

Nichol teaches courses in the United States Constitution and federal court and previously served as the dean of the UNC School of Law. He specializes in civil rights and discrimination and has written extensively on the state’s racial dynamics and politics.

In the first half of his lecture, Nichol told the story of Walker, who experienced discrimination both in the U.S. Army and when applying to the UNC School of Law because of his race. He was one of five plaintiffs in a 1949 lawsuit against the law school for racial discrimination, and in 1952, Walker Jr. became one of the first five Black men to graduate from the University and its law school.

During his university career, Walker was instrumental in the fight for civil rights and desegregation on campus. He led protests against the segregation of UNC’s football stadium, fought against academic obstacles such as literacy tests and advocated fiercely for integration in campus life, such as swimming pool privileges.

In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel after the lecture, Nichol said he reflected on the heroism of Walker and Harvey Beech, who also was one of the first Black students at UNC, in preparation for the lecture.

“In law school, we usually focus on the justices and famous lawyers because we study cases,” he said. “But you can forget that the American Constitution is not self-enforceable; it’s not self-triggering. It frequently requires heroic people to assert their claims, knowing it's going to be dangerous, knowing it's going to be difficult.”

Nichol also spoke about the current state of affairs of the Republican-majority N.C. General Assembly and their perpetuation in committing racial injustices, specifically pointing to police camera footage nondisclosure after the Black Lives Matter movement and the disenfranchisement of Black voters.

“North Carolina has so profoundly discriminated on the basis of race that the legislature has fully interfered with the very mechanism by which people confer their sovereignty on the General Assembly, and hold the General Assembly accountable,” he said.

Nichol concluded his lecture with a call for action against the hypocrisy of the nation.

Tolu Osungbesan, historian for DiPhi and attendee of the event, said she appreciated Nichol's call to action and his reflection on the audience's privileges. She said she also enjoyed how Nichol connected the efforts of Walker Jr. to ongoing struggles in North Carolina. While we've made progress, Osungbesan said, the progress hasn't been as significant as some people claim.

Nathaniel Shue, portraits chair of DiPhi, said the lecture tied into DiPhi's broader goals of promoting speech and debate on campus, public discourse and open discussion about the University's history in the state.  

"We think that's really crucial, and we want to always be a forum for these sorts of discussions," he said.

According to DiPhi’s website, the James Walker Jr. Portrait Fund, which is handled by the organization's portrait acquisitions committee, aims to purchase a high-quality artistic depiction in the style of the collection of DiPhi’s alumni.

DiPhi president Deniz Erdal said he believes that the addition of Walker Jr.’s portrait would be important given his contributions to the University and state, but also in diversifying the collection of portraits that hang in the Dialectic Chamber.

“I think James Walker Jr. would be a representation of what DiPhi looks like today and what DiPhi will look like going into the future,” Erdal said. “And, hopefully, we can have more representation and diversity on our walls in the future.”

Nichol said he appreciates the work that DiPhi has done through the portrait acquisition and that he sees the work of young people as green shoots of democracy.

“I think that the great hope for the American democracy lies with young people in North Carolina and across the country,” Nichol said

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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