Wilson, N.C. — Congressman G.K. Butterfield overcame bitter segregation to rise to a leadership position in the House of Representatives. However, his work as an attorney may be the best example of how he is Living the Legacy.
Butterfield grew up in Wilson in the 1950s with his father, a successful dentist, and his mother, a school teacher.
“I lived in a small rural community that was starkly divided between black and white. The railroad track literally divided the two communities,” he said.
Butterfield earned his bachelor's and law degrees from North Carolina Central University and served two years in the Army. He says his single biggest influence was his father, who showed him a life beyond the boundaries of segregated Wilson.
“He insisted that I travel with him for the March on Washington. (I) didn’t want to go. It was a very hot day,” Butterfield recalled. “(I) had to miss a day from school, but I went to the March on Washington, and what I saw that day changed my whole perspective of the world and community service.”
Butterfield says his father's call to service shaped his own. His father, Dr. G.K. Butterfield, became Wilson's first black city council member in 1953, after beating a white candidate. The younger Butterfield says the city changed its electoral process after that, from a district election to an at-large election. His father was soundly defeated in 1957.
“The case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that case made quite an impression on me,” Butterfield said. “From that day forward, I wanted to be a lawyer so I could go into court and litigate causes that were unjust.”
As a lawyer, he sued several jurisdictions in North Carolina in the 1980s to end at-large elections, which he says ended his father's political career.
“We filed voting rights lawsuits using the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the success of all of those cases dismantled at-large elections and created electoral opportunities for the African-American community,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield says there are now more than 300 black elected officials in the district he represents. While strides have been made, he says there is still a long way to go, especially in his hometown of Wilson.
“The unemployment in East Wilson is greater than 40 percent. The poverty rate is somewhere around 48 percent. Most of our children live in single-parent homes, and that is unacceptable,” he said. “That’s why I continue to do this work every day, and hopefully, we’re making a difference.”
Editor's note: February is Black History Month, and, each week, our Living the Legacy series profiles an African American in our community who embodies the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.