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Originally published Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 2:10 PM

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Obama on shoulders of men like Charlotte's Gantt

For all of his firsts - first black student admitted to an all-white South Carolina college, first African-American mayor of Charlotte - Harvey Gantt is perhaps best known for what he failed to achieve.

Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. —

For all of his firsts - first black student admitted to an all-white South Carolina college, first African-American mayor of Charlotte - Harvey Gantt is perhaps best known for what he failed to achieve.

In 1990 and again six years later, the son of a carpenter took on the father of Southern racial politics: U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Gantt lost both times, but his determination inspired countless others, including a young Barack Obama.

"He was a trailblazer," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the 90-year-old co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "He dared walk where others feared to tread, and to challenge the king of the hill, Jesse Helms."

Obama "is the heir to what folks like Harvey Gantt and folks of his generation did," says Kareem Crayton, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You can't get a Barack Obama ... if you don't have a Harvey Gantt."

Gantt was expected to take center stage briefly Wednesday to address delegates of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte - the place that he, as both a politician and an architect, helped shape as a modern Southern city.

But his speech, designed to introduce a short film about Democratic political leaders who have died over the past four years, was pushed back until Thursday in the interest of time and due to extended applauses following other speeches, the convention press office said.

Born in 1943, Gantt grew up in segregated Charleston, S.C. His father, Christopher Gantt, was a member of the local NAACP, and Harvey would later join the organization's Youth Council.

Gantt was interested in studying architecture, and the only school in the state that offered a degree was Clemson College, as it was then known. But Clemson did not admit blacks at the time.

The South Carolina Regional Education Board agreed to help pay for Gantt to attend Iowa State University instead, but Gantt really wanted to be in his home state. The following year, when Gantt's application to transfer to Clemson was rejected, his father filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on his behalf.

It would take another two years and a ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but in January 1963, Gantt enrolled peacefully at Clemson - an event the school proudly refers to as "integration with dignity."

Gantt graduated from Clemson with honors in 1965, then moved to Charlotte to join Odell Associates - becoming that firm's first black architect. He received a master's degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, then returned to Charlotte the following year to open his own firm, Gantt Huberman Architects.

His first foray into politics was in 1974, when he was appointed to fill the seat being vacated by the Charlotte city council's only black member. Nine years later, he became the Queen City's first black mayor.

To win that race, Gantt forged a coalition with white voters, Crayton said. Gantt won re-election to a second term before losing in 1987 to Republican Sue Myrick, now in Congress.

Three years later, Gantt shocked many when he announced that he would be challenging Helms. Even more shocking was how close Gantt came to knocking off "Senator No."

It was a hard-fought campaign and toward the end, Helms ran what has come to be known simply as "the hands ad."

The television spot depicted a pair of white hands folding up a job rejection letter. "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified," the narrator said. "But they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"

Helms won that race 53 percent to 47 percent. On election night, a 29-year-old Harvard Law student named Barack Obama watched the returns in a classmate's apartment and posed for a photo with his "Harvey Gantt for U.S. Senate" T-shirt, according to a story this week in The Charlotte Observer.

"He gave Jesse Helms one heck of a fight," Lowery said. "Harvey Gantt came as close as anybody to giving him a real scare. And he can't be overlooked in the annals of North Carolina, Southern and American politics." (Gantt lost by a similar margin in his 1996 rematch against Helms.)

In his concession speech, tears welling in his eyes, Gantt said: "I wanted to tell the young people that there are second and third chances in life. If you fail, try again."

He had failed. But he had made his mark.

"I think what stands out is that he fought hard, but with grace and dignity in those campaigns," says Ferrell Guillory, director of UNC's program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. "Helms won, but Harvey emerged as something of an icon of resistance to the Helms type of politics."

"He'll be remembered as a hero - someone who challenged probably the most conservative politician in North Carolina, and who nearly beat him," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black. "He won by losing."

Perhaps the greatest testament to Gantt's influence is a photo that hangs in Gantt's home. It's a picture of Obama, showing off that T-shirt.

The inscription reads: "To Harvey - an early inspiration! Barack Obama."

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Associated Press reporter Gary D. Robertson in Charlotte contributed to this report.

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Allen G. Breed can be followed at: https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed

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