He fought for poor people with legal and educational barriers and fashioned a corporate success story. After dealing with cancer, Arthur Griffin is advocating for Charlotte-area African-Americans with renewed energy.
For his five decades of crusading for the less fortunate, Griffin is the Charlotte Post Foundation’s Luminary award winner for 2018. He will be honored at The Charlotte Post Foundation banquet on October 13 at the Hilton Center City.
“Arthur Griffin’s fight for equity in education got him elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board and led him to become board chair,” said Gerald Johnson, president of The Charlotte Post Foundation and publisher of The Charlotte Post. “The Luminary Award goes to individuals who tirelessly help others find equal access, equity and inclusion in institutions that influence our lives. Arthur clearly exceeds this criteria.”
The winner of a battle against blood cancer and side effects of chemotherapy, Griffin chairs Charlotte’s Black Political Caucus and is a leader in the fight against the General Assembly’s permission to suburban cities such as Matthews that want to create their own tax-supported charter schools. Many predict that will lead to even more segregation in public education.
“If we allow that legislation to live, it will convert into something that’s very ugly,” Griffin said. If political efforts fail, he added, the courts may provide an avenue to success. “We may lose, but you’ve got to stand for something.”
Growing up poor in First Ward and Fairview Homes, Griffin learned the value of justice and equity in education. A graduate of now-demolished Second Ward High in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, Griffin attended NC A&T University but dropped out. Soon he was leading a US Army infantry platoon in Vietnam.
Returning to Charlotte, he joined what became Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. Former executive director Terry Roche recalled how that happened.
“Arthur was doing street law,” Roche said. “He was making contact with people in housing projects and referring their questions to us. Eventually, I asked him, ‘Would you like to get paid for that?’” He became the organization’s second paralegal.
Griffin soaked up knowledge on education as he railed against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ practice of suspending a disproportionate number of black students. He filled a 1985 vacancy on the CMS board but lost his first election run. He won a board seat in 1988, then chaired the board from 1997 until leaving in 2002.
Griffin and the late Joe Martin of Bank of America often collaborated on education equity. “I loved that guy,” Griffin said of Martin. “He was real.”
Wilhelmenia I. Rembert served on the school board with Griffin and remembered his passion for quality public education. “He demanded that we make sure all students had access to a rigorous curriculum,” said Rembert, a professor emeritus of Social Work at Winthrop University who is a partner in Evans Rembert Political Consultants.
Though saddened that a federal court ruling in 2000 ended CMS busing for desegregation, Griffin lists two school board accomplishments for which he takes pride. “We raised the level of expectation for all children,” he said. Further, when hiring Eric Smith as CMS superintendent in 1996, the board put measurable objectives in his contract. CMS was one of the country’s first school districts to do that.
For years, Griffin worked on an Economics degree that he finally earned in 1992 from the State University of New York, Albany campus. He had married his wife of 42 years, Alicia Elston Griffin and they had two children, Arthur Elston “Tony” and Christina.
To help support his family, Griffin left Legal Services in 1995 to work as a paralegal on Social Security Disability cases for Charlotte attorney Charles “Mac” Sasser. He did that until 2004 when the education arm of McGraw Hill came knocking.
At McGraw Hill, Griffin helped Dan Domenech, the former school superintendent in Fairfax County, VA, start the Urban Resource Advisory Unit. Griffin rose to senior vice president for National Urban Markets.
Now executive director of the American Association of School Superintendents, Domenech fondly remembered his tenure with Griffin. “People would come up to Arthur and hug him, shake his hand and talk to him,” Domenech said. “He was like a rock star.”
Sean Ryan headed Sales and Service for McGraw Hill and calls Griffin “my mentor in the education space.” Now senior vice president for Fuel Education in Herndon, VA, Ryan added, “I think Arthur and I are going to be friends in perpetuity.”
A retired grandfather of three, Griffin is feeling healthy and “going places and doing stuff. That’s a blessing,” he said. “It makes me feel good to give back to the community.”
McGraw Hill showed him “phenomenal opportunities” for those who are prepared, Griffin said. “I am more focused and articulate about education because if you’ve got a great education, you’ll do well in this country.”