DAVIDSON – U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s ties to Davidson aren’t the kind most politicians would have to a city near their governing district.
Watt was a shoe-shiner at two segregated Davidson barbershops as a young boy. In a May 2 address to an oral history class at Davidson College, Watt – recently nominated by President Barack Obama to direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency – discussed his journey from polish to politics.
The 67-year-old Democrat and Charlotte native spoke for more than an hour to the class and answered questions about civil rights in the 1960s, equality among Americans and his take on being nominated by Obama.
Davidson attorney Jim Fuller, a longtime friend of Watt’s and the class instructor, voiced his appreciation for Watt making the appearance one day after President Obama’s nomination.
Fuller referred to Watt as “the conscience of the Senate” when Watt served one term from 1985-86.
“He was that,” Fuller said. “Mel did what other politicians say they’re going to do: He walked away from the job after one term to be with his children. But he answered a call again.”
Watt has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993.
He said the appointment from Obama initially came in the form of a phone call from the White House that requested Watt’s presence on May 2.
Watt told the class of his back-and-forth exchanges with the White House and his attempts to move the appointment due to scheduling conflicts – one of which included his Davidson appearance – but ultimately made the trip on May 1.
“I told Jim, ‘I have run out of negotiating power,’ and he was nice enough to help me out,” Watt said of the rescheduled appearance, adding he is excited about the opportunity to serve the nation in a larger capacity with the FHFA.
He called his move from humble beginnings to a presidential appointment “proof of the American dream."
“I grew up in a house where if you looked up at the ceiling, you could still see the sky,” Watt said, “and if you looked at the floor, you could see to the ground.”
Watt stressed to the class the importance of not just promoting equality among all Americans but also maintaining those equal rights.
He said he wasn’t active in civil rights movements in the late 1960s as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, a fact he expressed regret over.
“There is still work to be done,” he said. “This concept of equality for ‘all’ (is important) and (it took) a long time for that concept to include African-Americans, women and 18-year-olds. We used to not allow 18-year-olds to vote.
“The concept of equality has evolved. The notion I could go from a barbershop shining shoes to being the regulator over all these assets after I was born in a house with no indoor plumbing is kind of an amazing story," he said. "It boggles my mind to think that evolution (of civil rights) has taken place in my lifetime.”