Career prospects looked pretty bleak for Dan Pollitt in 1957. He had landed a job teaching law at the University of Arkansas not two years earlier, then came the order that to continue on the payroll he would need to sign a disclaimer swearing he was not nor ever had been a member of the NAACP or any one of groups on the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations. He had spent the first five years of his career working for one of the few lawyers in the country who would represent defendants in House Un-American Committee cases.
“It was a very unpopular thing to do,” Pollitt told The Independent Weekly 10 years ago about fighting that oath. “It was like representing a child molester or something.”
Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas steered Pollitt to Chapel Hill, and in short order, he was causing the kind of trouble the University of Arkansas had wanted to avoid, said AFL-CIO general counsel Mike Okun, one of Pollitt’s former students.
Pollitt died March 5. He was 88.
Born in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 1921, Pollitt began defending causes early, dodging horse chestnuts his grade-school classmates threw at him for wearing an Al Smith for president button in 1928 when everyone around him supported Herbert Hoover. A half-century later, he ducked golf balls pelted at him during an anti-Vietnam War teach-in at the University of Oregon.
Pollitt enlisted in the Marine Reserve shortly after enrolling in Wesleyan University in 1939. He saw active duty in the Pacific in 1942 and was sent to Nagasaki a month after the atom bomb hit. After the war, he graduated with distinction from law school at Cornell, clerked for a liberal appeals court judge in D.C. and married Jean Ann Rutledge, daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Their marriage lasted until her death in 2006. Pollitt married again last year, to N.C. State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird ’73 (MMUS).
Coming to join UNC’s faculty shortly after Brown v. Board of Education, Pollitt took up the cause of integration, picketing segregated theaters and accompanying Dean Smith as he recruited Charlie Scott ’70. When the N.C. General Assembly imposed the speaker ban, Pollitt orchestrated the appearance of communist sympathizers Frank Wilkinson and Herbert Aptheker on the other side of the low stone wall between McCorkle Place and Franklin Street.
Over the years, the University honored Pollitt with the Thomas Jefferson Award (1982) and law school’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1992). He served four years as elected chair of the faculty. He retired as Kenan Professor emeritus in 1992 and taught at the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement. Recently he lobbied against a UNC faculty pay raise if it meant raising tuition. He never stopped mentoring. One of his former students he took under his wing, Wade Smith ’60 of Raleigh, told The Independent Weekly, “I watched him and I knew what a lawyer could be, what a difference a lawyer could make.”
Many years ago, when Pollitt’s daughter was jailed on a civil disobedience charge, Pollitt wrote to her to shore up her spirits, reminding her that the family was behind her all the way and telling her about the card he carried with him at all times in his wallet. It read: Illegitimos non carborundum. [Don’t let the bastards get you down.]
“Keep that in mind,” he told her.
— Nancy E. Oates