A United Nations mediator and former University of North Carolina (UNC) president, Frank Porter Graham was an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. Graham told King: “In your stand for nonviolence you [speak] for the immortal teachings of Jesus and the proved techniques of Gandhi, ultimately victorious over bombs, for faith over fear, understanding over prejudice, and love over hate” (Graham, 11 January 1957).
Graham was born in 1886, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where his father was the superintendent of public schools. He graduated from college and law school at UNC and then received an MA in history from Columbia University. After serving in the Marines during World War I, he returned to North Carolina to teach history at UNC. Graham was outspoken in support of trade unions and public welfare, and authored an “Industrial Bill of Rights” calling for improved working conditions and protection of freedom of speech and assembly (“Seek to Clarify”).
In 1930 Graham was elected president of UNC. In 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed Graham to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Among other recommendations, the Committee’s report suggested that Congress enact laws to end segregation, lynching, police discrimination, and voting prerequisites like the poll tax. When North Carolina Senator J. Melville Broughton died in 1949, the governor appointed Graham to fill the vacancy. Graham lost his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1950, saying of his opponents, “First they tried the red issue and failed, then they tried the black issue and won” (“Frank Graham at 80”). Graham then joined the United Nations as a representative to India and Pakistan, where he tried to negotiate peace in Kashmir. He remained at the United Nations for 19 years.
During the summer of 1957, King and Graham spent time together at a Morehouse College commencement where they were both honored. In December 1957 King asked Graham to serve on the National Advisory Committee of the Crusade for Citizenship, a program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Graham accepted.
Graham made regular financial contributions to SCLC and, in 1962, he accepted King’s invitation to join the board of directors of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights. As a member of the board of trustees of the Southern Regional Council, Graham wrote a resolution supporting King in his efforts in Selma in 1965.
Coming to King’s defense against black leaders advocating a turn toward violent self-defense, Graham said, “Those Negro leaders decrying Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins and looking down on them as out of date should really see they are standing on the shoulders of those they’re looking down on” (“Frank Graham at 80”). Graham retired in 1967 and moved back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He died in 1972 at the age of 85.
“Frank Graham at 80: Liberal Still,” New York Times, 15 October 1966.
Graham, “Students ‘Standing Up’ for the American Dream,” New South 15, nos. 7, 8 (July–August 1960): 3–7.
Graham to King, C. Kenzie Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 11 January 1957, MLKJP-GAMK.