Out of the ashes of a Great Depression and the powerful stimulus of a World War, a new generation of North Carolina leaders emerged to challenge the status quo. Bill Friday, Terry Sanford, Bill Aycock and many others from North Carolina’s own “Greatest Generation” led a time of dramatic change that established many of today’s institutions. The documentary film, Generation of Change takes us from their youth in the 1920s to the climactic election of 1972, and the birth of the modern two-party state in North Carolina.
The film opens with the onslaught of the Great Depression, setting the stage for an era of transformative change. Through the voices of Dr. Friday and Gov. Sanford, we witness the heavy impact of the 1929 stock market crash and heavy unemployment, with the already impoverished South feeling the brunt of it even more than the rest of the nation. The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his activist “New Deal” policies generated great excitement and fierce controversy over the balance between government and the private economic sector.
Following Pearl Harbor, Friday, Sanford and their generation lived through a devastating two-front World War, which also had positive economic and social consequences within North Carolina.
We move to the eventful year 1948 –- a pivotal time with lasting consequences. With characteristic modesty, Dr. Friday explained how his famous UNC Law School “Class of ‘48” study group “grew up in the Depression and after four years in the military, we knew we were the lucky ones that got to come home . . . and we just decided to contribute.”
These men and many others were deeply influenced by the charismatic UNC President Frank Porter Graham, who encouraged his students to become involved in improving their State. In fact, at the time North Carolina was at or near the bottom of all states in education, public health and poverty rankings.
1948 also marked the election of populist Gov. Kerr Scott North Carolina, overturning the long-prevailing status quo of a ruling business class. In matters of public education, highway construction, public health and even race, most North Carolina voters showed an openness to modernization.
Yet just two years later, the divisions in the state came to the forefront during a bitterly contested election that saw conservative attorney Willis Smith defeat “Dr. Frank” for a full term seat in the U.S. Senate in a campaign marked by strong efforts to inflame race conflict.
Generation of Change then follows the emergence of Friday, Sanford and their generation as they rose into positions of authority. By 1956, and a youthful 36 years old, Bill Friday became the nation’s youngest major university president and, by helping to create a new consolidated statewide university system, a leading advocate for the unique mission of the public university to expand opportunity and drive change.
Study group leader William Aycock was Chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill during the tumultuous 1960s, while, at age 44, Law School colleague Terry Sanford was elected governor in 1960.
The 1950s and ‘60s were marked by the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the growth of a national model system of community colleges. Perhaps the best example of the power of public-private partnerships espoused by the Sanford/Friday generation was the creation of Research Triangle Park to capitalize on the unique academic resources of the region, bring Fortune 500 high tech industry to the state, and generate jobs statewide.
The film ends in 1972 after the consolidation of the UNC System under the leadership of Bill Friday and with the elections of Republicans Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate and James Holshouser as Governor. The election marked a dramatic shift that saw many conservative Democrats turning Republican and ushering in the two-party political environment that continues to this day.
People in the Film