The Upstate is a faceted mix of old and new, rich and poor. As nimbly as Liberty Bridge crosses the Reedy, pathways have emerged, linking disparate ideas to build a beloved community that’s captured the world’s attention. No one has formed a living bridge better than this year’s Visionary Leadership Award winner Merl F. Code Sr. Although a Greenville resident, this litigator and long-time judge stands out across the entire region for his tireless work for all. Here’s the secret key to this one-of-a-kind Code.
Family / Respect Your Roots
Not a day goes by at Code’s law firm Ogletree Deakins without the attorney telling a tale about his parents. “My father? He was a great storyteller, a funny man. He understood human beings,” he says, as a smile breaks across his face. “My mom, she was extraordinary. She told me you’ve got to challenge yourself. What matters is trying to dig to find out what you’ve got, the greatness within you.” Sedalia Code always pushed her son growing up in Seneca. If Merl didn’t like the Sunday sermon, she’d prompt him to write a better one. She commanded her youngest to enter the annual oratory contest he’d already won nine times—not to secure a decade of dominance, but to simply test himself.
Meanwhile, his father, Allen L. Code Sr., served as disciplinarian, commanding respect as the principal of the all-black Seneca Blue Ridge High School. It was a household built upon education, faith, sports, and service, and it molded the grandson of a sharecropper into one of the wisest civic leaders in the state.
Education / Never Stop Learning
“I lived segregation,” declares the 70-year-old. “But my father didn’t believe you have to be where you started. He believed that any man that had the right to read and think isn’t any better than any other man who has the right to read and think. He’d tell me, ‘Merl, you need to be prepared and equipped to do battle intellectually.’” The elder Code was the first in the family to go to school beyond third grade. He eventually earned a master’s degree and became superintendent of Seneca Negro Schools. “I know how blessed I was,” reflects Merl of the community’s emphasis on education. “There was always someone with a degree asking me, ‘How are you doing in school?’”
His small kindergarten class produced an orthopedic surgeon, mathematicians, lawyers, and college professors. “That was a laboratory,” he adds with a chuckle. “We didn’t mess with blocks and paint, we were doing hard-core stuff that wasn’t normal in the early 1950s.” Later, that same group would look for errors to challenge the textbook. “We’d come home and do homework and the next day tell the teacher the book isn’t right.” After graduating cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University, and playing seven years of professional football, he enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s School of Law, where he became an Earl Warren Legal Scholar and the first African-American president of the Student Bar Association.
Service / Seize Your Responsibility
Code’s parents placed service on par with education. “That is the obligation of being a good citizen,” the attorney summarizes. “You give, you serve.” The ways he’s served are endless, with positions across 30 groups that include the Palmetto Institute and Phillis Wheatley Association, to Greenville’s Urban League and Furman’s Board of Trustees. Longtime friend and co-philanthropist Bob Hughes has worked with Merl since 1980. “He’s a combination of so many interesting things,” shares the developer. “Every time Merl opens his mouth, you need to hear what he says. He always says something meaningful, and he always brings people together.”
Behind the scenes, the duo lobbied to bring down the Confederate flag. In public, they’ve partnered for Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce projects. Merl served as the Chamber’s first African-American chairman, and created a program that’s grown into today’s Accelerate Program, fueling economic expansion. “I’m excited to know I have something to do with that,” Merl asserts. “We are an international city now, because we started laying the groundwork for that in the 1980s.” Bob elaborates, showering praise upon his friend. “Greenville is blessed that it works together, and people with all kinds of voices can be heard in a community vision. Merl has been there to lead when things have gone their best, and he’s helped fix things when they’re not working.”
“Many people have the ability to speak with a loud, booming voice. But when Merl Code speaks, the volume is fueled by his passion. His belief in doing the right thing is an amplifier, and his powerful message as a visionary community leader is heard with clarity and certainty.” — Rick Davis, CEO, Elliott Davis
Teamwork / Find Strength in Unity
Whether it was sandlot pick-up games, or municipal court cases, the diehard athlete recruited team players. “You learn the strength of each other, and when you merge those strengths together, you have a chance to be champion.” His record speaks for itself. The captain’s Seneca Blue Ridge Tigers won the State AA title in ’65. The cornerback’s A&T Aggies were crowned National Black Champions in ’68. The rookie’s Montreal Alouettes won the Canadian Football League Championship in ’70. Off the field, Team Code is equally as competitive and successful—especially through the United Way of Greenville County. Merl not only served as the first black chairman of the board of directors, he also kick-started the organization’s African-American Leadership Council. “In the late ’90s, we raised $70,000. This year, we did over half-a-million dollars . . . from the minority community!” he exclaims. “Our volunteer hours are extraordinarily high. We are participating like full citizens ought to. That is our responsibility.”
The gamer has firm ideas on how to be a good teammate. “On some teams, I wasn’t the captain of anything, or the star of anything,” he reveals. “I just did my job. But my job was important to us to win. Everybody has a job they’re supposed to do, and when everybody is doing it, if you have the right folks in the right positions, it can work.”
Mentorship / Lead by Example
One position serves as the judge’s favorite—and that’s in front of young people. On Tuesday nights, his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, mentors middle school athletes. “It’s quid pro quo,” he states succinctly of the four-year-old program. “They’re baseball and football teams. We sponsor them and provide uniforms, but in response, they come here.” Tutoring, life’s lessons, and role-playing form the curriculum presented by judges, ministers, business executives, and police officers. “We want to expose them to different stuff,” Merl explains. “If a police officer stops you on the corner, how do you act, and what should you not be saying?”
He flips open a scrapbook to a vintage black-and-white photo showing a bright-eyed, 11-year-old posing with Jackie Robinson. “This is our Cub Scout group,” he says, pointing to himself. “I was awestruck. He was such a nice guy, a gentle giant. He had the graciousness to give to little boys. The dream he was living gave us the inspiration that we could be what he was. You can imagine. We always looked up to this guy. To have him come and be in his essence was amazing for us.” Thousands now stand in Merl’s essence, soaking up his intelligence and passion.
Perseverance / Never Give Up
Omega Psi Phi wanted to hold its district meeting in Greenville. It was the racially charged ’60s, and multiple cities had turned the boys down. Merl went to talk with Buck Mickel and was assured Greenville would welcome the group. The service-oriented pacesetter never stopped seeking support to advance a good cause. “I’m grateful that men like Buck Mickel, Arnold Burrell, Roy Abercrombie, and later Champ Covington and Max Heller saw something in me and said, ‘Let us help you do what you’re trying to do.’”
His nonstop efforts for business development and social change later linked him with Buck’s daughter, Minor Mickel Shaw, and a deep friendship formed. “I didn’t hear that story until just a few years ago,” she shares. “I thought it was very special. Merl may be a treasure for this community, but he’s enhanced my life. He’s mesmerizing.” The two met while guiding downtown growth through the Greenville Central Area Partnership. Her first impression has never changed. “I don’t know anyone who can bring people together better than Merl. I’ve always been impressed with his desire to make Greenville a better place for everyone. He wants to make sure we pay attention to housing, jobs, and transportation. That’s one of his major accomplishments.”
Many have noticed his efforts to forge a diverse and vibrant community. The one-time “Young Lawyer of the Year” has received South Carolina’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Palmetto and been inducted into the state’s Black Hall of Fame. Now, as he slowly steps down from the bench, and other posts, one group continues to hold his attention—the Institute for Child Success. The nonpartisan organization drives research and policy to help children. “It started here in Greenville, and we now have fellows all around the country,” he explains, excitedly. “The thing we’re most proud of is we got legislation passed for children to improve their health and educational opportunities.”
Community / Respect Everyone’s Culture
He’s dined with U.S. presidents, owned successful businesses, and ruled the law. But one life experience stands out above all others. It was his rookie year playing in Montreal. “For the first time in my life, I felt like a full human being,” he recalls. “I had never felt this comfortable with people whose complexions didn’t look like mine. We were able to communicate, we talked, we made friends, and it was a gift.” The discrimination he discovered north of the border was between English- and French-speaking Canadians, and that’s when the lesson dawned on him. “It’s not about how you look, nor how you sound, it’s about respecting someone else’s culture.”
He returned home with a mission.
“I wanted a society in which people are offered the opportunity to grow, to assimilate. Where neighbor seems to look out for neighbor. They don’t happen to look like you, but we’re all Greenvillians. We are all South Carolinians. We ought to be able to galvanize around that. So, I started programs.” They’ve moved the city to where it stands economically and socially today.
Bob Hughes sums it up best. “Merl is a unifier, a communicator, and a wiseman. Part of Greenville’s secret is how well aligned we all are, and he’s a big part of that.” Imagine how far we can go, now that we’ve cracked the key to the Code.
This article originally appeared in TOWN Magazine‘s November 2018 Giving Issue