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Pollitt receives Long Leaf Pine award

Dan Pollitt at his Chapel Hill home. Photo by Taylor Sisk.by Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Gov. Beverly Perdue has awarded UNC Kenan Professor Emeritus and longtime civil-liberties and civil-rights advocate Dan Pollitt the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the state’s highest honors.

Pollitt was nominated for the award by state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., whose father, Floyd McKissick Sr., worked with Pollitt on a number of civil-rights issues. But it was presented to Pollitt by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird – with whom he was wed on April 26, at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill – as she was introducing him for a talk he gave at Carol Woods Retirement Center on July 10.

The award was bestowed for a lifetime of “integrity, learning and zeal,” and it came to Pollitt as somewhat of a surprise. He said that after receiving the award, he had his secretary look it up online and learned of the illustrious list of past winners, including Maya Angelou, Michael Jordan, Billy Graham and Bill Friday – “All good people who have done their thing very well,” said Pollitt, “but none of them were anti-establishment.”

Which Pollitt very decidedly has been.

He served as defense council in a number of historic civil-liberty trials, including those of Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s, and has been active with numerous organizations associated with the left, including the ACLU, the National Sharecroppers Fund and Southerners for Economic Justice.

In 1955, Pollitt took a position at the University of Arkansas, which he held until being told that in order to keep his job he’d have to
sign a disclaimer stating that he was not, and never had been, a member of any subversive organization, including the NAACP, with which he’d been active. He refused, and accepted a position at UNC.

Frank Porter Graham was president of the university at the time and was a champion of liberal causes.

“I came to Carolina for its record of academic freedom,” Pollitt said. “I thought this would be a good place to be.” The university administration seemed “receptive to my positions.”

In the half century since, in addition to serving as a professor of law and chair of the UNC faculty, he’s continued to stand against what he’s perceived to be injustices within the university and the broader community. He vocally opposed the 1963 speaker ban and helped lead a successful protest to integrate a downtown Chapel Hill theater.

Of a lifelong radical winning the Long Leaf Pine award, Pollitt said, “I think it means we’ve come a very long distance. Though I’m not sure the governor knows who I am.”

Nonetheless, said Kinnaird, “He was absolutely delighted. He said it probably meant more than any award he’s ever received.”

Pollitt remains an active resister, including opposition to the death penalty, and still keeps steady hours in his law school office.

“Constant skepticism,” he said, “is the hallmark of a democratic society. That’s my motto.”

In an interview some 10 years ago, Pollitt revealed another of his credos. In the course of relating advice he’d once given to his daughter, Phoebe, who’d been arrested for an act of civil disobedience, he said that he wrote to her: “You know I carry in my wallet, for easy observation, a card with the words ‘Illegitimis non carborundum’: Don’t let the bastards [grind] you down.”

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