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Floyd McKissick Jr.: From a storied past to a distinguished present 

by: Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Advocacy Communications Strategist

Floyd McKissick Jr.’s law office in Durham is filed with photographs, many of him or one of his children posed with national political figures. One stands out. It is a photo from 1966 of his famous father, Floyd McKissick Sr., who headed the Congress of Racial Equality, with Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael at a press conference as they announced a protest and organizing march across Mississippi. The junior McKissick, then 14, took part. Besides marching with many iconic Civil Rights leaders, he remembers something else about the trip: For several days, he and his father stayed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. It was the place where, almost two years later, King would be assassinated. “When they said the Lorraine Motel, I said, ‘I know exactly where that is,’” McKissick said. 

Against that backdrop of a childhood steeped in the politics and the organizing of the Civil Rights Movement, it is hardly surprising that McKissick’s own path has led him to a life of involvement in  politics and public service. Included in that run was an eight-year stint on the Durham City Council, as well as time on the Durham Board of Adjustment and the Joint City-County Planning Commission. Since 2007, McKissick has served in the state Senate, and is currently Deputy Minority Leader of the chamber. McKissick recently took some time to talk about his present, his past, and how he views his changing role at the North Carolina General Assembly.

How do see your childhood affecting what you do today? 

I think the totality of my life’s experience, understanding the struggle for civil rights and equal rights that took place, to understand the coalitions that had to be built, to understand how the political process can be made to work, to see things like the Civil Rights Act actually come together, the Voting Rights Act come together, when as a child you see all of that emerge, it formulates your thinking as to what you can do with policy, to have solid policies that better people’s lives.

More recently, you have seen projects like the American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Performing Arts Center transform the Durham downtown. As a former Durham City Council member, how important do you think leadership in local government is when it comes to seeing those kinds of projects come to fruition?

 

 McKissick recalls a front-row seat to the civil rights movement as the son of Floyd McKissick Sr., who headed the Congress of Racial Equity. Photo credit: Najuma Thorpe for NCLM

You can play a central and integral part in helping to shape the direction that your community goes in, and provide opportunities for growth and development and jobs, and do it in a way that is architecturally distinguished, and planned in a way that is appropriate, with compatible uses, complimentary uses. Thinking about the role that local government can play in influencing those outcomes, immediately impacting the quality of life of those that live in the city and those outside the city, it is rather profound. People don’t always realize that local government has the ability to make that immediate, close impact. 

Where do you think your fellow members of the General Assembly are in understanding what you refer to as that “immediate impact” of local government?

Those serving in the General Assembly need to understand that there has to be a strong partnership between our cities and the state. We need to be supportive of the needs of our cities to grow, to prosper, to provide a high quality of life for their residents. There won’t always be agreement. But there has to be mutual respect. We need to be careful about meddling in matters that are intrinsically and uniquely local.

You served for three years as a member of the majority party in the Senate. Now, as a member of the minority party, how do you attempt to still be effective when your party is out of power?

 

 McKissick thanks a poll worker in Durham on election day. Photo credit: Najuma Thorpe for NCLM

As a minority party leader, I build relationships with those in the majority party so that there can be open doors of communication. The thing you have to be able to do is agree to disagree on certain things. You may vehemently disagree, but at the end of the day, once that decision is gone, you have to be able to set that aside, and look at other areas where you can find agreement and build consensus. I don’t try to call people out in a way that, the next day or maybe the same day, I can’t have a civil conversation. Then, I know that when I go to them with an issue that I perceive as a problem, they will listen to me, they will hear me out.

Are you actually able to get legislative outcomes that you seek with that approach?

If I can show (the majority party) that there might be unintended consequences, or that the outcome might not be in their best interests, or maybe that there is a better fix to the problem that they are trying to solve, then you have that dialogue. Then maybe you can run those amendments. If the amendments are run, you don’t worry about getting credit for it.