Jim Melvin is right about everything and don’t you forget it.
The former mayor and current president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation has rarely been shy about expressing his opinions, unvarnished and unexpurgated.
Such was the case when I first met Jim … and we first disagreed. I don’t remember the topic, but take it from each of us: The other guy was dead wrong.
We’ve often disagreed ever since, but I have never doubted Jim’s abiding love for Greensboro. It is his mission, his purpose. And he will work at it, in some way or another, for as long as he lives.
You’ve learned a lot about Jim, now a spry 87, from the still-simmering debate over whether his portrait should be removed from Elon University School of Law because of his views on the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it should. There would be no Elon law school in downtown Greensboro if not for Jim’s efforts.
That’s not to say he hasn’t gotten some things wrong. And Nov. 3, 1979, is one of them.
He refused to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 2005, which had sought to add context and understanding to the bloody confrontation in Greensboro where five anti-KKK protesters were fatally shot by Klansmen and Nazis.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, one of the survivors of the tragedy, had led and organized a “Death to the Klan” rally on that day. A heavily armed KKK caravan arrived on the scene. And we’ve been reliving the ugly aftermath of the bloodbath that followed in some form or another ever since.
When the hearings had begun, I suggested, more than once, that Jim, who was mayor in 1979, really should participate. And more than once he told me no.
Jim blames the events on Nov. 3 on outsiders who simply chose Greensboro as a convenient battleground. I disagree. I believe Jim was so concerned about the impact of Nov. 3 on Greensboro’s reputation that he tried to repress it like a bad memory.
But it is an indelible part of our history that isn’t going anywhere. Better to come to grips with it and learn from it, than to pretend it never happened.
Jim also saw no need for a city apology for the lack of a police presence during the rally. I think he’s wrong on that count as well.
That said, the vast body of Jim’s work in Greensboro is both undisputed and unmatched.
From the law school to his support of public education, to the city’s downtown ballpark, to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, to the Union Square Campus, to the critical role of Action Greensboro in jumpstarting the local economy — and so much more — his imprint, either directly or indirectly, is unmistakable. I have never seen him happier than when the Bryan Foundation annually celebrates the successes of grant recipients.
But you probably know that.
What you may not know is that rarely, if ever, does he seek acclaim. He just wants stuff to get done.
Yes, city hall bears Jim’s name and a statue of him was placed at what is now called First National Bank Field, but often he has purposely downplayed his involvement in projects because he knows his name can be polarizing.
And, to be honest, even he knows he isn’t always right.
When then-state Sen. Trudy Wade tried in 2015 to force changes to City Council districts and elections in Greensboro, Jim stepped up to defend the council’s mix of district and at-large representation. This was the same model Jim had opposed when it was initially pushed by the late civil rights icon George Simkins and the NAACP to increase racial diversity on the council. But it was a stance he had come to regret.
“I missed it,” Melvin said in Howard Covington Jr.’s book, “Once Upon a City: Greensboro, North Carolina’s Second Century.” “I admit that. I kept trying to convince him we were doing the right thing.”
And it was Jim who sought sought an influential fellow Republican of Wade’s, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, to back local control of the council.
In remarks at Simkins’ memorial service in 2001, Jim noted the deep admiration the two former adversaries had developed for one another. During a banquet only a month before Simkins’ death, Jim recalled, his voice choking, he had told Simkins, “George, I want you to know that I love you.” Simkins replied, “I love you, too.’
“Those” Jim added, “were the last words we ever spoke to each other.”
So, for all his crusty Southern certitude, Jim has been willing to learn and grow. Maybe he will on the lessons of Nov. 3.
I had been planning to write about Melvin for a while now, because I believe we need to show our appreciation for people like him while they’re around to hear it. Maybe now is a good time.
I still think he’s wrong about Nov. 3. But I have never questioned his lifelong love affair with his hometown.
That’s why, in a column a few years ago, I included him on a list of local leaders whom I considered role models.
Nelson Johnson was on that list, too.