How North Carolina got its reputation for moderation in the civil rights era.

I’ve been reading Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, a book that I started a while back but didn’t pick up again until recently. I’ve just finished the section on North Carolina’s major politicians in the fifties and sixties: Senator Frank Porter Graham, Governor Kerr Scott, Governor Luther Hodges, Senator Sam Ervin Jr., and Governor Terry Sanford.

As you may know, North Carolina was thought to be a moderate southern state during the fifties and sixties. While George Wallace bellowed segregation down in Alabama, the governors up here walked a fine line between taking action on civil rights and avoiding a white supremacist backlash. Yet North Carolina had an active Klan, multiple bombings of homes of civil rights lawyers, and plenty of segregationist politicians. With such ingredients for violence, what made my state turn out to be “moderate”? It came down to Hodges and Sanford, who occupied the governor’s mansion from 1955 to 1960 and from 1961 to 1964, respectively.

William Umstead was North Carolina’s governor when Brown v. Board was handed down, but he died soon afterward, and his lieutenant governor Luther Hodges took office. Hodges wasn’t a career politician; he was a successful businessman who had worked in New York before moving to Germany to work for the Marshall Plan. As governor, he wanted to see North Carolina develop a modern economy that would improve the standard of living for everyone in the state. To this end, he spent a great deal of time attracting businesses to North Carolina. There’s no indication that Hodges questioned segregation, but he knew that northerners were averse to it. To put it simply, economic development was more important to Hodges than resisting integration, and so he consciously aimed at “moderation” on racial issues. Developing the state’s moderate reputation was key to getting large corporations such as IBM to set up in the new Research Triangle Park, which was one of Hodges’s projects. But as Christensen notes, “the middle turned out to be token integration,” not meaningful action.

If the moderation of the first North Carolina governor to respond to Brown v. Board was a part of a marketing plan for the state, the moderation of the next governor was more sincere. Terry Sanford was a liberal, but one who’d seen his hero Frank Porter Graham go down in flames in a Senate campaign against a race-baiting segregationist opponent. He’d seen the power of a segregationist backlash, and so he was careful to support segregation in his campaign speeches: “The people of North Carolina do not want integration and we cannot afford to close our schools, but this is where [my opponent] would lead us. He is injecting a false issue on integration and it is false because he knows I am opposed to integration. The difference is that I know how to handle it, and he doesn’t.”

Sanford was lying. Once in office, he integrated the parks department and helped civil rights groups negotiate integration with stores and hotels. Later in life, Sanford had this to say about his carefully crafted statements: “You couldn’t get too far ahead of the people and you couldn’t say anything that you’d later feel bad about. … Under the circumstances, I was cautiously going as far as I could go.” Governor Sanford never moved quickly enough for activists in his party, and he didn’t like demonstrations and marches, but it seems that he did want to see an integrated North Carolina even when he claimed otherwise.

This kind of political lying is interesting to me, in this case because Sanford so clearly seems to be in the right. Had Sanford been straightforward, he might have lost to his segregationist opponent, Beverly Lake, and North Carolina might have had the same kind of shameful state-sponsored violence that Alabama did. In North Carolina’s age of machine politics, an ambitious young politician could get to the top by loyally riding the coattails of a more powerful politician, or by seizing an opportunity to beat a weak machine candidate, or by coming along at a time when an old machine was falling apart. Sanford had worked for Governor Kerr Scott and took control of Scott’s organization for his own gubernatorial campaign. Anyone with the ambition to rise through a machine as fast as Sanford did must have some sense that the normal rules don’t quite apply to him. And so political lying comes quite naturally. In this case, it was a good political lie.

Jesse Helms, more than anyone else in North Carolina, saw clearly how people resent political lying and managed to channel this resentment into anti-elitism. Remember what they used to say about Helms? “You may not like Jesse, but at least you know where he stands.” But railing against political lying has its limits. North Carolinians would vote someone like Jesse into the Senate — though by smaller margins than you might think — because he’d be one voice among many. But each time a Helms-style conservative ran for governor, he lost to a more pragmatic candidate. And even Helms had to do some political lying to downplay his racialist campaign tactics. (See pages 267-270 in Christensen’s book for a discussion of this.)

Conservative anti-elitism has a source in an accurate perception that progressives are lying politically. But one mistake of anti-elitist conservatives is to think that political lying derives from progressivism. It doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t have to: it follows from the kind of ambition it takes to win. Politicians who build their careers on doing the right thing — for example, Frank Porter Graham — won’t be able to protect their weak spots. But all of this has been said many times before.

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6 thoughts on “How North Carolina got its reputation for moderation in the civil rights era.

  1. The book sounds fascinating. Definitely added to my wishlist.

    I have a feeling that a lot of progressives these days (at least implicitly) believe that Democrats are lying about issues such as gay marriage. At least, it feels to me like that’s the most direct analog today to the kind of lying that Sanford did.

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  2. What does this mean- Conservative anti-elitism has a source in an accurate perception that progressives are lying politically.

    Are you speaking within the context of your example or is this a more general assertion? If it’s the latter, are you really going to argue that there is no conservative elite? Or that all of our society’s elites are progressive? Really? Also, care to provide some credible examples of progressive political lies?

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    • It’s a general assertion, but I probably should have generalized further. Any politician who is significantly to the left or to the right of some large portion of his or her constituency will probably have to do some political lying, and that portion, if they realize that the politician is claiming moderation yet pushing harder, will be resentful. In North Carolina state politics, it’s liberals who have to do this. But, to be clear, I’m speaking about politicians who don’t have the political luxury of speaking their minds.

      I probably shouldn’t have made a claim about current events, because it’s pretty hard to judge whether someone’s being honest about his aims without the benefit of hindsight. I was trying to look at the way Helms channeled NC conservatives’ accurate perception that folks like Sanford were more liberal than they was letting on and vaguely link it to right-wing reactions to Obama and other Democratic leaders. It’s my opinion that Obama downplays his commitment to gay marriage, infuriating gay activists but avoiding direct conflict with conservatives. But, like I said, this is just how politics works, and it’s not a “progressive” thing.

      I shouldn’t even have to say this, but, yes, there is a conservative elite, and much of the social elite is some kind of conservative, though a single-axis analysis will really mess us up if we go much further.

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  3. and to second Justin’s questions, do the con elites not lie politically? and are the “progressive elites” real or more a figment of paranoia and simplistic views of the world? ( although you could easily argue, and i would likely agree, that a lot of populism is based on simplistic views of the world.)

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    • Con elites also lie politically. It’s the rare politician who is able to be completely forthright about all her goals and still earn the kind of support she needs to win reelection and get things done.

      I guess that by “progressive elites” I would mean “that portion of elites who are progressive” rather than “the elites, who are all progressive.”

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      • ah, the perils of blogging. Remember to pre-emptively disavow every conceivable inference that you don’t intend next time! (note: this is sarcasm)

        Anyway, I agree that this sounds interesting. I’m a tarheel* myself, but I’ve never been as knowledgeable about state politics as I’d like; this could help.

        *but NOT a UNC-Chapel Hill fan, just to be clear.

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