Having served through an unprecedented four terms in office, James B. Hunt is likely to be regarded as one of the most powerful, if not the most accomplished governor in the history of North Carolina.  Hunt established himself as a successful Democrat devoted to public service and committed to the constructive transformation of the state’s political culture at a time when wrenching controversies, and sweeping social and economic changes affected the lives of every citizen.

     Yet, as this recent biography by Wayne Grimsley fully illustrates, at the center of this transformation was a paradox—Hunt himself was a traditionalist deeply devoted to the values of family, education, economic growth and public safety, while maintaining that quality seemingly most crucial to the successful politician wielding power in today’s society—the ability to function as an insider while confronting issues with flexibility and detachment.

     Although the book stops short, at the end of Hunt’s first term as governor, Grimsley’s study offers a central interpretative approach to Hunt’s career.  While Hunt led state government in N.C. through a period in which the revolutionary changes of the Civil Rights era were both assimilated and adapted—Hunt remained a North Carolina progressive in a deeper, traditional sense.  Grimsley provides a first chapter in which he undertakes the difficult task of determining the themes of nineteenth century progressivism in order to establish this difficult proposition.

While Grimsley’s interpretative approach may have its flaws, its justification derives from its explanatory power with respect to personal attributes as well as professional achievements.  It reconciles Hunt, the individual and his career, to the larger currents within North Carolina history and culture, yet does so at a time when the state was already well on its way to becoming an industrial giant, leaving behind the agrarian world that had been dominated by tobacco cultivation for more than a century.  Grimsley’s study views the Wilson County native as a product of an older political culture on its way toward significant modification.  But the world that shaped Hunt’s character also gave him the personal attributes that enabled him to guide the state successfully through a process of change. 

Grimsley’s account of Hunt’s education, early involvement in politics, and his pathway to power is generally engaging and plausible, though not always consistent with other outstanding interpretative works in recent North Carolina politics and society.  Though occasionally his work has the flavor of an academic exercise, the wealth of sources and the competent manner in which they are arrayed establishes this as an authentic and scholarly approach to Hunt’s career.  This is all the more important given that he draws frankly on the testimony of his father, Joseph Grimsley, a Hunt aid who occupied a top level position within the Hunt administration, and whose role seems to have been both positive and constructive.

The memorable highlights of this book are numerous and worthy of comment. Jim Hunt is portrayed as the product of a traditional North Carolina home with progressive, albeit populist politics. Reared by exceptional parents, Hunt was especially influenced by his father, who was devoted to soil conservation, a founding member of the Wilson County Grange, and to the tobacco price support program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for which he worked.  Hunt’s mother was a school teacher, equally influential in shaping the character that would guide him through his career as governor.  Both of his parents were deeply religious in a socially conservative world in which segregation of the races was the norm.  Drawn to politics by his father’s ardent support of Roosevelt’s farm program, Jim Hunt’s career as a student was devoted to the tobacco allotment program, about which, he wrote an award winning MA. thesis.

But James Hunt showed his capacity for adaptation and personal growth through his turn to politics and the study of law due to his work on behalf of Terry Sanford’s gubernatorial candidacy in the election of 1960.  Grimsley shows how this decisive event in North Carolina history left its imprint on Hunt.  While Sanford became his political role model, the defeat of Sanford Democrat, Richardson Preyer in the election of 1964, sent Hunt down an altered path of cautious moderation on the issues that defined 1960s liberalism.  In 1969, with the influence of George Wallace and Richard Nixon profoundly felt in North Carolina, Hunt emerged as a national figure by opening the state Democratic Party to wider participation by youth, blacks, and women.  Yet Jim Hunt by this time was already so much at odds with the leadership of the national Democratic Party that along with Hargrove Bowls and Nick Galifinakis, he refused to attend the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1972.

Among the more important insights of this book are those that shed light on the complex fractures within the two party system as a result of 1960s issues—such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, drugs, crime, and more.  Hunt’s political genius was revealed not only in his ability to be elected as a Democrat to the lieutenant governor’s post in what became the Republican Party’s electoral watershed in the campaign of 1972.  Hunt also was able to reinvigorate North Carolina progressivism in a manner that lent itself to reform even as it sustained and enlarged an older tradition.  In the wake of the Watergate fiasco, with the state’s economy severely troubled, Hunt emerged as a legislative leader setting the stage thereby for his landslide victory in the gubernatorial campaign of 1976.

Jim Hunt’s legacy as governor will long be debated among North Carolinians devoted to the state’s history and culture.  Grimsely’s account shows that Hunt opened the door to wider participation by African Americans and women.  He sought to make his administration a “new beginning” for North Carolina—one that lived up to the promise of greater inclusion and prosperity for all its citizens.  As governor, Hunt emulated his political hero, Terry Sanford, placing renewed emphasis on the improvement of education.  He revealed his progressive strain by urging support for the Equal Rights Amendment, by supporting the public regulation of utilities, energy conservation, and through a program of industrial development that placed emphasis on higher wages for North Carolina workers—and more.

Unlike Terry Sanford, Hunt retained his popularity with Tarheel voters.  Grimsley shows that he did so by rejecting the leadership of presidential candidate George McGovern at a decisive moment in the election of 1972, and by picking up conservative themes of aggressive law enforcement and opposition to the crusading liberalism of HEW Secretary Joseph Califano on the issues of tobacco and the total integration of the UNC system.  Hunt’s response to the  controversial “free the Wilmington Ten” movement also became a defining moment in his first term as governor, setting the stage for his continuation in office.  By refusing to pardon the Wilmington Ten, Hunt in effect stood up to militant demands, though by reducing their sentences and enabling the imprisoned members of the Ten to be released, he effectively ended a controversy that might have had a far more devastating impact.

Grimsley’s study of Hunt is persuasive and well documented and should be read by scholars and students.  But the book has its share of flaws.  The “tradition” of North Carolina progressivism he invokes is artificial and will not be likely to hold up under close scrutiny.  He does little to consider how the changes in twentieth century America contributed to the alteration of North Carolina society and political economy through the two world wars and the Great Depression.  The growth of federal programs, economic intervention, and the growth of industry in North Carolina spelled a sharper cleavage with the older mode of progressivism than he suggests.  And he does not ponder why a progressive like Jim Hunt could not become President of the U.S.A., as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who was of less ability than Hunt..

On the subject of the Wilmington Ten case, Grimsely is on shaky ground.  The case aroused popular furor in parts of the nation between 1978 and 1980 when it appeared that Ten defendants in a Wilmington, N.C. prosecution for arson and assault on firemen and police had been the victims of a conspiracy against civil rights activists.  Although Grimsely offers little evidence or proof, he asserts that the Wilmington Ten were terrorists— a statement not consistent with John L. Godwin’s Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way (yours truly), a book that he cites but does not draw from.  Godwin shows that some of the Ten could have been innocent, that Nixon and his clan benefited from the riot in Wilmington, paving the way toward electoral victory in the campaign of ’72, and that government records in the case have been effectively withheld from scholars according to national defense, foreign policy considerations, in addition to others.

Grimsley also seems opaque on the subject of conservative tactics in the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and his supporters. If Hunt was a moderate reformer who fulfilled the progressive aspirations that were broadly consistent with North Carolina’s heritage, how do we explain Hunt’s accommodation to the insidious practice of conservatives, who yielded to and even promoted radical reforms at the same time that they successfully posed as opponents of the same?  The central weakness of this book may be its lack of insight into the conservative movement set in motion by Nixon and Wallace. 

Though the interpretive context and setting may be questionable, Grimsely’s portrait of Hunt as a man of remarkable qualities, both social and intellectual, devoted to the public interest, whose skill and flexibility animated his career from farmer’s advocate to corporate attorney and governor—make this book an outstanding contribution, worthy of the effort to unravel its subtleties and insights.


John L. Godwin is author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).



Of Politics and Power

James B. Hunt: A North Carolina


by Wayne Grimsley  (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2003) pp.283, ISBN 0-7864-1607-6



From The People’s Civic Record

Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2004


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