Merl Code says parents’ example spurred his community service work

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Firm: Ogletree Deakins

Area of practice: Positive employee relations and diversity

Education: Law degree, University of South Carolina, 1979; Bachelor of Science degree, North Carolina A&T State University, 1970

Community involvement: Has served on numerous boards; he was the first African-American to chair the Greenville County United Way board, the first African-American to serve as a Greenville Municipal Court judge, and the first African-American to chair the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce.

Greenville attorney and businessman Merl Code is a product of his upbringing.

Code’s father, the late Allen Code, was a longtime principal in Seneca and superintendent of the black schools in Oconee County in the days of segregation.

“My father was an extraordinary educator, but more importantly, he was a leader who believed in the power of unity of people and attacking and solving a community problem by using the skills and talents of all the people in that community,” Code said. “My daddy was a big inclusion guy, and somehow he was able to parlay that in Oconee County where the leadership there was willing to, and did, invite people of color to be part of the growth in Oconee County, and in particular Seneca.”

So when Code, a former professional football player, got involved in community work in Greenville, the city to which he moved in 1971, focusing on diversity and inclusion was natural.

Diversity has been a big focus in your professional life and your community service. Why?

I watched my father intermingle with all kinds of folks. I watched the governor of South Carolina and senators all come to visit my dad. I sat in the room, and my daddy would make me introduce myself and ask them if they wanted anything to drink. I’d leave the room and they’d talk. Fifteen or 20 minutes after the governor leaves, a person down on their luck and having a hard time in life would stop by to see my daddy. He’d sit in the same place the governor sat, and I’d have to come out and introduce myself and ask them if they wanted something to drink. From that, I learned to value people.

My father was one of the first few men of color to join the Republican Party back in the 1960s. I questioned him. He said, “Merl, sometimes decisions are made with no intention to harm you. You weren’t thought about. You weren’t in the room. I’m joining the Republican Party because I intend to be in the room. I’m not telling you I’m going to change what the action is going to be, but they can’t say they didn’t know. I’m going to be in the room.”

It took me a while to understand what he was talking about. But I came to understand that the problems we have as a community can be best solved if we try to do it together.

Greenville didn’t have the same problems as other Southern cities when it came to integration, and some would say that has continued as far as race relations go today. Why?

In the late 1960s, my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, wanted to hold its district meeting here. The Civil Rights Act had just passed. We had been turned down in a couple of cities. We came to town and we were told we needed to talk to Buck Mickel. We did and he said we’d be welcome in Greenville. We were told he and his cohorts contacted the hotels and said that Greenville will not be on national television and to open the doors.

From that point on, Greenville was on the path to becoming the international city we are today. How can you be an international city and not have a relationship with the indigenous folk who live there? How can you invite Germany and Italy and Japan, and you have folks here who can’t sleep in a hotel? You can’t.

Look at where we are today. We’ve got the largest foreign investment per capita in the country. At least it was when I was chairman of the chamber, and I don’t think it’s changed. They fully understood if we’re going to be an international city in 30 years, we better start now. We’re benefiting from the vision of folk before us, and I’m hoping those who come behind us will benefit from our vision of how to build and be an international city. With all of us pulling in the same direction, this is a special place. When people are willing to play their part in the growth of the community, it’s hard to stop.

People now are concerned that we may be growing too fast.

You want and you must have growth. In order to have growth, you must have places for folks to live and jobs for them to occupy so they can pay for those places to live. We’re addressing affordable housing. The city is making sure there’s land available. The city and county are working to make sure there’s money available. We’re thinking about it now as we continue to grow and displace.

If you have to move out a little further from the downtown, which is very probable, transportation becomes an issue. We’ve got one of the best small transportation systems in the country. We need to enlarge it. We need to make transportation something that isn’t just for folk we call disadvantaged. Transportation means somebody can get on a bus and get to where you need to be at 3:40 and get off. They need to be on time and clean. We’re having the conversations we need to have about transportation.

This is not an intent to push anybody out. It’s an intent to grow.

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