Hugh Morton Among the Movers and Shakers

We’re pleased to present the very first essay from Worth 1,000 Words project, written by journalist ROB CHRISTENSEN. Rob has been writing about N.C. politics as a reporter and a columnist for 36 years for The News and Observer and The Charlotte Observer; his book The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics won the N.C. Literary and Historical Association’s Ragan Old North State Award for the best work of nonfiction in 2008.

[Download/print a pdf of this essay]

In 1971, Hugh Morton announced his short-lived candidacy for governor with all the public relations panache that he brought to his other projects, from promoting Grandfather Mountain, to salvaging the battleship USS North Carolina, to saving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
P081_NTCR1_002820_03A row of pretty young women in shorts and straw boaters stood outside the Capitol in Raleigh on a chilly December day holding up placards with letters that spelled out “Morton for Governor.” Country music stars Arthur and Ralph Smith warmed up the crowd. Former Carolina football legend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice was on hand to lend support.
Although he visited all 100 counties by helicopter, Morton’s gubernatorial campaign never got off the ground. While Morton never held political office, he was long a political player, serving as advisers to Tar Heel governors from Luther Hodges to Jim Hunt, attending national political conventions, with an uncanny knack for being in the room at just the right time.
Morton was card-carrying member of the state’s post World War business/political/civic leadership – a group who worked to move a once poor agricultural state into the national mainstream. They tended to be pro-business, pro-education with strong ties to the University of North Carolina. They sought to avoid the racial turmoil that swept much of the rest of the South as the system of Jim Crow crumbled. They were mainly moderate Democrats, although they could just as easily be called moderate Republicans. University of North Carolina historian George Tindall once called them “business progressives” and that is as good a label as any.
Morton’s photographs of political figures span more than a half a century. Among the first is a photograph of UNC President Frank Porter Graham, a future senator, squiring First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt around the Chapel Hill campus. They include photographs of Governor J. Melville Broughton, Senator Clyde Hoey, and end with such 21st century figures as Governor Mike Easley. My favorite political photo is of Governor Kerr Scott taken during the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a cigar sticking out of the side of his mouth, a campaign boater on his head and an (Adlai) Stevenson button on his lapel – the picture of a happy warrior.
While there are plenty of photographs of official occasions, there are also lighter moments as well – Governor Dan Moore fishing, Governor Kerr Scott in a t-shirt and overalls on his Alamance County farm; UNC President Frank Graham pitching horse shoes, and a posed gubernatorial candidate William Umstead at his piano, a campaign shot designed to soften his austere image.
A photograph of Governor Luther Hodges shows him with a trout fly embedded in his cheek. The governor appeared one day at Morton’s house on Grandfather Mountain Lake with the request: “How about cutting this thing out for me, Hugh?” Worrying about a possible infection, Morton had instead taken him to a local hospital, snapping the picture of the wounded governor in the hospital waiting room.
Morton had backstage entrée to the North Carolina’s powerful politicians because he was a friend and political intimate of many of the men – and men it was until recently – whose images he captured in photographs.
Kerr Scott appointed him to the state Board of Conservation and Development in 1951. He served as publicity manager for Governor Luther Hodges’ 1956 election campaign. Governor Terry Sanford appointed him chairman of the commission to bring the battleship the USS North Carolina battleship to Wilmington in 1961, and Governor Jim Hunt appointed him to lead a campaign to change the constitution to allow governors to serve consecutive terms. Because of Morton’s expertise in public relations, governors wanted him to do even more. But Morton picked his battles. He rejected Hunt’s proposal to lead the campaign for an unpopular gas tax increase in the early 1981.
Judging from the number of photographs in the collection, Morton seemed to have a special relationship with two mid-20th century political figures who were more his contemporaries, Governors Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford.
Hodges, a former textile executive, was among the first governors to travel throughout the country and the world courting industries. If Hodges was “the South’s number one salesman,” as Time magazine called him, North Carolina had fewer better salesmen than Morton. While Hodges was promoting industry, Morton was touting tourism – from making Grandfather Mountain into a tourist attraction, to raising $315,000 to bring the USS North Carolina to his home town of Wilmington to getting arch-rivals Jim Hunt and Senator Jesse Helms to work together to raise $500,000 in 1981 to help prevent Cape Hatteras lighthouse from sliding into the sea.
The Morton-Sanford connection was in part a generational one. Both were wounded World War II veterans, with Sanford serving in the Europe and Morton in the Pacific. (Even in wartime, as an Army photographer, Morton showed an uncanny ability to be near power snapping close-ups of General Douglas McArthur.)
Both Morton and Sanford were also attracted to John F. Kennedy, another energetic World War II veteran, and the collection is rich with Kennedy images. Morton led the North Carolina effort to raise money for the Kennedy presidential library in Boston. Only Massachusetts raised more money than North Carolina ($250,000.)
There are photographs of some Republicans in the collection as well, such as Senator Jesse Helms, and Governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. But for much of Morton’s life, North Carolina was a one-party state dominated by Democrats, with most of the ideological battles taking place within the various factions of the Democratic Party.
Morton was centrist businessman, not an ideologue, happy to work with liberals such as Kerr Scott and Terry Sanford and more centrists such as Luther Hodges and Jim Hunt. The group of post-war governors was instrumental in creating the Research Triangle Park, the state community college system, the school for the arts in Winston-Salem, and the residential math and science school in Durham among other innovations. Such initiatives made North Carolina a model for much of the rest of the South among moderate Democrats such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Bill Winter of Mississippi.
When he ran for governor, Morton campaigned as a fresh faced moderate. In 1972, North Carolina’s schools were undergoing significant racial integration for the first time and Morton preached calm. The solution to education, Morton said, “lies in new moderate leadership which will bring new resources to our schools and will our people together at the table of good will.”
Always a promoter of North Carolina’s natural beauty, Morton became concerned in the early 1990’s about the pollution resulting the Tennessee Valley Authority’s 13 coal-burning power plants. Morton lent his voice to the conservation cause including producing documentary about the effects of pollution, narrated by former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, which helped inspire the passage by the state legislature of the Clean Smokestacks bill in 2002.
Despite the aid of pretty girls, country singers, and helicopters, Morton never succeeded in becoming governor. But for a half of a century, he not only captured the state’s political elite in his lens, but helped influence their policies.
–Rob Christensen

9 thoughts on “Hugh Morton Among the Movers and Shakers”

  1. Congratulations Rob on the first “Worth 1,000 Words.” I enjoyed the essay very much. If I may, permit me to add a comment about that NC gas tax of 1981.
    As I recall from a Hugh Morton interview from 1982, he related the story this way.
    In 1977, Governor Jim Hunt asked him to head a campaign to change the state constitution and permit the governor to succeed himself. That campaign was successfully completed in 1980. In March of 1981, Hunt called again…this time the Governor wanted a 3-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to finance road improvements. Morton again stepped in to help. That help this time may have been even more important than it had been in ‘77. Hunt had polling data that said support for the gas tax was weakest among blue collar workers and farmers. The Governor’s plan called for Morton and retired Charlotte banker C.C. Hope to lead an effort to change the opinion of that segment of the population. Well, Hugh Morton had better idea. Rather than banker Hope, why not recruit Arthur Smith? Morton believed that a country music legend like Smith would do better than a banker when trying to convince blue collar workers and farmers to support a gas tax. Smith had worked on Morton’s run for governor in ‘71-’72, and agreed to take on the challenge. The plan worked…on June 26, 1981, the legislature approved the tax.
    Morton concluded the interview saying: “Governor Hunt really went all out for those two things. He put his whole reputation on the line. For him to come to me for key assistance in both of them, I look on it as probably the greatest compliment that I’ve been paid by anybody.”

  2. This is probably the best essay about Hugh’s political interests and activities that I have ever read, with Jack’s comments taken into consideration.
    Arthur Smith was a very good friend for many, many years. When Hugh was fighting the National Park Service to prevent the construction of the “missing link” of the Parkway across Grandfather Mountain which the Park Service was planning and which Hugh felt would be very destructive to the beauty and integrity of the Mountain ( He had a way with words. he said, “It would be like taking a switch blade to the Mona Lisa.” ) Arthur joined Hugh in a televised debate with the head Of the Park Service to present Hugh’s point of view. Very successfully. Hugh and Arthur parted ways , without rancor, only on the subject of Liquor by the Drink. Since he was as close to a tee-totaller as a man could be and did not stand to ever gain a cent from the sale of liquor by the drink he was a good choice to head up the fight because of his conviction that it would be good for tourism in North carolina. He lost twice, the second time in a state-wide referendum. When he was asked why he lost so big that time he replied, “I thought we would get our share of the hypocrite vote, but they got it all.”. He debated Coy Privett many times – without Arthur’s support. Third time was charm, and I think Hugh’s position (”What we have now is, ‘I won’t sell you a drink, but I’d be glad to sell you a gallon.’”) worked out pretty well.
    Thanks, Rob, for your excellent work.
    By the way, Hugh cropped most of the pictures shown with your essay when he printed them. He was as much a master in the darkroom as he was with a lense.

  3. Thanks, Rob for your contribution to “Worth 1,000 Words,” a solid kick-off to the essays!
    Regarding Julia’s mentioning Hugh Morton’s cropping of his photographs, I’d like to share why we present non-cropped images in the Morton digital library (in fact, all of our digital collections) and “A View to Hugh.” First and foremost, archivists should scan and present the entire negative or transparency because it conveys to researchers the integrity of the original item. By doing so, we enable many possibilities, for example assuring researchers that we haven’t left something out, and allowing researchers who have access to a finished photographic print or the image used as an illustration in a magazine or newspaper to see how the photographer and/or publisher saw the final image as compared to how a photographer shot it. This practice is also useful for those times when a photographer crops a photograph different ways for different reasons.
    Photography is an art of elimination or extraction as evidenced by the negative’s frame (that is, what was *not* photographed). Showing the entire negative also prohibits archivists from presenting a version of an image that is not how the photographer saw the image. When I crop another photographer’s image, I usually note that *I* cropped the image and show the non-cropped version when appropriate. The blog post “Don’t Shoot Your Eye Out” ( is a lesson in how Morton or a publisher cropped an image and what was lost by doing so.
    There is also a practical side to this practice as well: spending time to crop thousands and thousands of negatives for the online digital collection would significantly reduce the amount of material we can make available. Maintaining the integrity of the original item, however, outweighs practically.

  4. Arthur Smith passed away yesterday, 3 April 2014, and I’ve been working on a blog post for a goodly portion of the day. If I don’t finish it in the next fifteen minutes it should be up by tomorrow. Morton photographed Arthur Smith on several occasions over many years.

  5. If one picture is worth one thousand words (and someone, somewhere said that was true)…
    And if Legendary Photographer Hugh Morton took a half-million pictures during his lifetime (and I believe that’s true, having work with UNC Archivist Stephen Fletcher and the Morton Photo Collection since 2008)…
    Then what is Morton’s word count?
    The answer: A lot, but more importantly, when the pictures are as good as Morton’s, they speak for themselves and give full voice to the millions of words they represent.
    On the afternoon of Saturday, May 20, 2006, Hugh Morton snapped his final picture…an image of a 4-year-old bear cub at the Cub Habitat at his beloved Grandfather Mountain. Twelve days later on June 1, 2006, nine years ago today, Hugh, in the words of his dear friend Bill Friday, “slipped peacefully away from us all…We shall remember old friend, we shall always remember.”

  6. When UNC Tar Heel Ralph Grizzle wrote the Hugh Morton profile for the 2002 book North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made A Difference, 1900-2000, he described Hugh as “…a giant, but one as gentle as Mildred the Bear and as graceful as the ravens that ride the currents of fresh June breezes on top of Grandfather Mountain.”
    Hugh Morton was indeed a giant, larger than life, and when something needed to be done for his Tar Heel state or his Tar Heel University, he was always on call.
    And graceful, yes, and I would add artistic to that. His photographic portfolio in Wilson Library’s Hugh Morton Photographic Collection will forever prove his artistic ability.
    It was one of those June days, 12 years ago today, that we lost Hugh Morton. I will forever remember Dr. William Friday’s words at Hugh’s memorial service… “June 1st was a beautiful day up at Grandfather, a gentle breeze was blowing and nature was all about. As the sun went down on the Southern slope, Hugh slipped peacefully away from us all.”
    Dr. Friday then closed his remarks with: “We shall remember old friend, we shall always remember.”
    So, on this day, we remember a dear friend, and a North Carolina treasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *