Sam Ervin Jr. Biography
By Alex Kirby
Early Life: Education and Military
Samuel James Ervin Jr. was the fifth of ten children and was born to Samuel and Laura Ervin on September 27, 1896 in Morganton, North Carolina. He was born into a family of Scots-Irish Calvinists and was raised in a religious household under his pious mother. His father, Samuel Ervin Sr., was a fiery and successful self-taught lawyer who earned the family name respect and a good reputation in the town of Morganton. Sam graduated high school in 1913 and then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1913 to 1917. Just before graduating from the university, Ervin volunteered his service to the military in the First Division in World War I for eighteen months. For his distinguished service to the armed forces he was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the French Fourragere.
Early Law Career: “just an ol’ country lawyer”
After returning from war in 1919, Sam Ervin began his career in law. He was admitted to the North Carolina bar, and soon after enrolled in Harvard University Law School. He graduated from Harvard in 1922 and immediately began practicing law in Morganton. Even before graduating from Harvard Ervin was nominated for the position of “representative in absentia” in Burke County for the North Carolina House of Representatives, and once he finally graduated he was officially elected to the position.
Outside of his career, Sam Ervin also maintained a stable personal life. In 1924 he proposed to Margaret Bruce Bell and in June they were married at a large wedding in the Concord Presbyterian Church. A little over a year after they were married their first child, Samuel Ervin III, was born. In 1930 daughter Leslie was born to them, and in 1934 another daughter, Laura, came along. While Margaret stayed home and raised the family, Sam’s career took off.
Although his career progressed rather rapidly, Ervin often referred to himself as “just an ol’ country lawyer” (Dickenson). He was not an elitist in any form, and represented all kinds of clients–rich and poor, black and white–all across western North Carolina. One case stood out among the rest in Sam Ervin’s law career and reflected his ideals as a lawyer. The 1926 Arthur Montague case was one where Ervin showed his true integrity and represented his beliefs above all else. Arthur Montague was a black man from Georgia who was arrested and convicted of breaking into the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton and raping a twelve-year-old white girl. Ervin was one of several local attorneys appointed to defend Montague in the trial, although the case was considered shut from the start due to the racial tension in the town. Montague was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the time, Ervin hated the death penalty, and he strove to do everything in his power to prevent the punishment by appealing the case to the State Supreme Court and paying for the appeal out of his own pocket. Although Montague’s sentence was upheld and he was sent to the electric chair, Ervin received a great deal of criticism from the people of Morganton for supporting this convicted black man. This case was monumental in Ervin’s career, as it dealt with two important conflicts of his time: racial prejudice and capital punishment.
Over the course of the next several years Sam Ervin undertook numerous judicial appointments in North Carolina. From 1935 to 1937 he served as a judge in the Burke County Criminal Court and in 1937 he was appointed as a judge to the North Carolina Superior Court where he stayed until 1943. On January 22, 1946, Sam Ervin was elected as a Democrat to the 79th Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the unexpected death of his brother, Joseph W. Ervin. Sam served in Congress until January 3, 1947, when he resumed the practice of law. Governor R. Gregg Cherry appointed Ervin as an associate to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1948, where Ervin worked for six years.
Senator Sam Ervin
Sam Ervin is most remembered for all the contributions he made during his time in the United States Senate between the years of 1954 and 1974. In June of 1954, Governor William B. Umstead appointed Ervin to fill a seat after the death of Clyde Hoey. Ervin served on several committees in the Senate, playing a prominent role in the Senate Judiciary Committee and even serving as the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which investigated the events surrounding Nixon’s Watergate Scandal. This Watergate Committee popularly became known as “the Ervin Committee” under his leadership.
Senator Ervin also sponsored and supported several key pieces of legislation that impacted the justice system in America. Many involved criminal law, such as the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, which gave legal counsel to indigent defendants, and the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which allowed defendants who were unable to afford bail to be released from custody pending trial (“Facing”). Ervin also had a complex approach to capital punishment. As evidenced by his extensive attempts to prevent the death penalty for his clients early on in his career, he had always shown a clear opposition to capital punishment. Nevertheless, much later in his career, Ervin started to show support for the death penalty. After the Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court case there was a four-year national moratorium on the death penalty, during which Senator Ervin co-sponsored a bill to have the punishment reinstated.
Senator Ervin is also known for his role in the government during the Civil Rights movement. Although he did not consider himself to be racist or have any personal motivation to segregate based on race, Sam Ervin was adamantly opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The reasoning behind his opposition to the act was based on his belief in a strict and literal interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. This constitutional constructionist approach was a trait that he received from his father, who likewise believed that the laws of the nation were intended to be derived from an exact examination of the document the United States was founded on. Therefore, when dealing with matters in the Civil Rights movement, Ervin opposed most pieces of legislation on the grounds that giving more rights to one group of people (blacks) would diminish the rights of others (whites) and was therefore unconstitutional. Senator Ervin favored preserving the Constitution over remedying injustices toward black people. Ervin even helped organize resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, but later on he reversed his position and supported the school desegregation movement because he did not believe that desegregating public schools took any rights away from whites. Sam Ervin’s stance during the Civil Rights movement was one that many critics considered to be evidence of “cognitive dissonance,” since he opposed the movement but not with the same harsh racial antagonism that his colleagues did (Dickenson).
Senator Ervin’s Legacy
Senator Sam Ervin resigned from Congress in December of 1974. In his later years, after retirement, he resumed his law practice and even wrote several books on his political experiences including Preserving the Constitution and The Whole Truth: Watergate. Ervin died in 1985 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, due to complications from emphysema. To commemorate his political contributions to the United States, his personal office and library has been preserved and now established as the Senator Sam Ervin Jr. Library and Museum at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton. Additionally, hundreds of the letters that Ervin’s constituents sent him during the Civil Rights movement are kept in the Wilson Library on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus.
Dickenson, James R. “Sen. Sam Ervin, Key Figure in Watergate Probe, Dies.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Co. 24 Apr. 1985. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
“Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in North Carolina.” UNC University Library. UNC, 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
Wasniewski, Matthew. “Ervin, Samuel James, Jr.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. United States Congress, 2007.Web. 15 Nov. 2013.