Already admitted to the Bar in 1919, before completing law school, Ervin entered politics straight out of Harvard. Even before he had received his degree, Democrats in Burke County, NC had nominated him in absentia for the North Carolina House of Representatives, to which he was elected in 1922, 1924, and 1930. Ervin also was elected and served as a state judge in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
When his brother, U.S. Representative Joseph Wilson Ervin, committed suicide in late 1945, Sam Ervin filled the remainder of his term in Congress but did not seek re-election, allegedly vowing to never set foot in Washington, D.C. again.
Senator Ervin made a deep impact on American history through his work on two separate committees at the beginning and ending of his career that were critical in bringing down two powerful opponents: Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954 and President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. The Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, which investigated Watergate, was popularly known as the "Ervin Committee."
Senator Ervin condemned the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision calling for desegregation of schools when he signed The Southern Manifesto in 1956. He later changed his mind on the Brown decision, but continued to oppose forced desegregation by the federal government, on "states rights" grounds.
Senator Ervin's opposition to most civil rights legislation was based on his commitment to the preservation of the constitution in its pristine formulation that he repeatedly stated encapsulated civil, human and equal rights for all. There is little if any evidence that he engaged in the racial demagoguery of many of his Southern colleagues. Some historians consider Ervin's position to be one of "cognitive dissonance" because he opposed federal legislation to combat race-based discrimination, but did not do so in harsh, ugly terms. While he once maintained that Americans were entitled to "their prejudices as well as their allergies," he did not seem to be motivated by prejudice himself, but more by his suspicion of federal power.
Meanwhile, Senator Ervin's strict construction of the constitution also made him a liberal hero for his support of civil liberties, his opposition to "no knock" search laws, the growing intrusions of data banks and lie-detector tests as invasions of privacy. In 1966, Senator Ervin played a major role in the defeat of a constitutional amendment to make prayer in public schools compulsory.
He got his start in investigative matters, even before Watergate, when in January 1970 it was revealed by Christopher Pyle, an investigator for Ervin's Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, that the U.S. Army was performing domestic investigations on the civilian population. Ervin's further investigations on the matter over the following years, together with the Church Committee inquiries, led to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (after Ervin had left office).
Ervin gained lasting fame through his stewardship of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, also known as the Senate Watergate Committee, from the 1972 presidential election. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield chose Ervin because it was unlikely Ervin was going to run for reelection in 1974, because he had no aspirations beyond his office, because of his knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was an even-keeled, conservative, independent-minded Democrat. President Nixon thought at first that Ervin might potentially be partial to him, but that was not the case.
As a lawyer, he served as a co-counsel with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC on several high-profile cases, including a successful appeal in Joyner v. Duncan. Ervin died in 1985 at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from complications of emphysema. He was 88 years old.
Since Ervin's retirement, no one has held his former Senate seat for more than one term to this day. It is currently held by Richard Burr.
Sen. Ervin's son, Samuel J. Ervin III, was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. His grandson, Sam J. Ervin, IV, is a lawyer, a North Carolina utilities commissioner and candidate for the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. Another grandson, Robert C. Ervin, was elected as a North Carolina Superior Court Judge for District 25A in 2002.
The play debuted in Morganton in 2001. In 2005, The Blowing Rock Stage Company in Blowing Rock, NC produced a new production starring Gary Lee Smith that later toured several states.
There is also a one-act version for school audiences.