2005 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Thurbert E. Baker ’75
When Thurbert Baker was six years old, he told his mother and anyone else who would listen that he wanted to be a lawyer. They all thought he was crazy, he says. There were no lawyers in the family. But he not only became a lawyer, he became attorney general of the state of Georgia, the first African-American to hold that post. Quite the journey from his beginnings on a small farm near Rocky Mount.
Though he always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, he didn’t always know he wanted to be in public service. But he realized early in life that he got a lot of pleasure out of helping people. Eager to make Rocky Mount a better place, he co-chaired the human relations commission at his high school. At Carolina, he was part of the effort to establish the BlackStudentCenter on campus. And he was very involved as a student recruiter, serving as an emissary to high schools all over the state where he talked to minority students who were considering Carolina.
He also went out for the fencing team and in 1975 became the Atlantic Coast Conference individual sabre champion. Just a few years ago, the ACC recognized Thurbert as one of the top fencers in conference history. When he got out of Carolina, he considered trying out for the U.S. Olympic Team but instead continued on toward the thrust and parry of the legal profession.
Becoming a lawyer was, for him, another way to help people. From his days as a young lawyer in Atlanta, he has been involved both in community issues and in national organizations. When the opportunity presented itself, he ran for the state legislature and served five terms before becoming attorney general. As a legislator, Thurbert played a key role in enacting Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program, its original Victims’ Bill of Rights, and its “Two Strikes and You’re Out” program to put repeat violent offenders in prison for life. And he was part of the team that corralled the votes needed for Georgia’s lottery.
As attorney general, he has concentrated on fighting crime and championing severe punishments for domestic violence. A political rising star, he was included in a recent list of 100 Democrats to watch.
So what better way to sum up Thurbert Baker’s attributes than in the words of two governors who know him well? When Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia, named Thurbert to the post of attorney general, he said, “He will fill it with great dignity, unflawed character, unruffled stability, a good heart and a first-rate mind.”
Our own governor, Mike Easley ’72, a classmate of Thurbert’s in political science, has this to say: “Thurbert Baker has demonstrated leadership abilities in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. He is well known and respected for his skill in building consensus across diverse groups. Thurbert is a gifted lawyer, orator and story teller. His strong sense of values comes from the support he received his hometown city and state, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and the education he received at UNC-Chapel Hill.”