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The Making of a Southern Democracy - Tom Eamon

If it’s your belief that politics in the state have swung to the right… too far right… take heart in a new book on state politics which makes the case that historically North Carolina has never long gone too far off in one direction. George Olsen has more.

Politics in the state has been in upheaval over the last several years. A long-time solidly Democratic legislature went solidly Republican in 2010… the first time since 1896… and moved even further in that direction two years later. Add in a Republican Governor for the first time in 20 years and the state’s political landscape is markedly different from any time in the state’s history. Despite that, East Carolina University political science professor Tom Eamon notes some potential pitfalls for state Republicans. 

    “We should remember Barack Obama won in NC narrowly in 2008, the first time in many years a Democratic candidate had done this, and then in 2012 Obama lost narrowly but relatively close, and Democrats were elected to a lot of levels on the state level such as treasurer and attorney general. So there’s a dilemma for Republicans and especially those that want to run statewide in that they need to project, certainly not a liberal image, but they need to project a moderate enough image in running statewide so they can win in an election where they electorate is fairly easily divided.”

Another pitfall is portrayed in Eamon’s new book “The Making of a Southern Democracy.” Depending on where you stand politically, what’s going on in Raleigh can seem pretty extreme. But Eamon’s book notes that “extreme” hasn’t typically been the North Carolina way.

    “Aycock, we’ll see had a very mixed legacy, but he was known as the education governor because even though he was a man of his time in many respects and a racist in many respects he was different in that he favored universal education, for men, women, and despite his racism, education for African-Americans, so this was important in building a certain reputation for NC.”

Tom Eamon is referring to Charles B. Aycock, Governor of the state from 1901-to-1905. Aycock might be emblematic of state politics for over a century… he was a spokesman for white supremacy campaigns in the late 1890s but once in office espoused education for all. Eamon’s book doesn’t spend much time looking at that period of North Carolina history… he’s specifically looking at 1948 to the present day… but Eamon finds a similar refrain continued well into the 1960s in state politics … the state backed segregation but not to a point of upheaval.

    “Another part of the progressive image, superficially at least, the NC politicians were, during much of the 20th century, were less overtly racist that politicians in other southern states. There was still segregationists. That’s what the atmosphere of the time called for so they were not that daring or innovative. No one who aspired to elective office could advocate integration at that time, racial integration, but they did at least pay lip service to the idea that the education system should be for everyone and once the court orders started coming for more school integration in the 1950s NC officials took a more moderate course and they said they opposed the particular orders. However, they said the NC way was to behave in a civilized manner and the state had a duty where there were specific court orders to obey those court orders.”

It’s not exactly high praise… our Governor chose NOT to block schoolhouse doors to integration… but Eamon’s book makes the point, that there were hot button issues like race that the state dealt with in the 50s and 60s, and then there was business… and given the choice, politicians at the time seemed to err toward the business side of the equation.

    “The attitude of Hodges and others of similar ilk in the business community at the time was if we have major unrest, major racial unrest in the state, that’s going to create a bad business climate, and people in New York and Chicago making business decisions about where they might expand will be afraid of a state that is unstable and has a lot friction. By seeming to have this moderate posture on the question of race was indeed something that gave NC a better image than Arkansas and Alabama and Mississippi would have had. The idea NC is a stable state, so a lot of businesses began to come into the state at that particular period and had there been that hostile climate that could have potentially brought about race riots and friction and unrest, I’d say a number of businesses that decided to settle in NC would not have done so.

   The “Hodges” that Tom Eamon references is Luther Hodges, who succeeded William Umstead as Governor when Umstead died in 1954 then subsequently won a full term in office, serving until January 1961. The state’s leadership downplayed race in order to promote growth in the state… part of why Eamon refers to North Carolina as “the most progressive of Southern states” when it came to an issue like school desegregation in the 1950s. But perhaps the state’s political leaders were taking their cues from the state citizenry. Eamon notes the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the state and how that might well have turned on the perceived indifference of the Republican Party to the federal tobacco price support system.   

    “They said you better watch out because farmers are going to be hurt if the Republicans win. Well, when the election was held in Nov. 1960 eastern NC, the 41-county coastal plain region of NC, was one of the strongest areas in the entire country for John Kennedy even though he was a Catholic and culturally many eastern North Carolinians were culturally suspicious of anyone who was a Catholic, but the 41 county area of eastern NC voted 68% for John Kennedy and carried the state for him because Nixon was stronger in other parts of the state, but Kennedy was stronger in eastern NC than he was in his home state of Massachusetts. He got 60% there and NYC, a place that had a large Catholic population and was generally more sympathetic to a liberal agenda, he got 63% there, but in eastern NC 68%, and you can bet that tobacco had a lot to do with that.”

So if state Democrats are looking for signs of hope, they might want to look at the history books… and not at the state’s election maps which Eamon says will likely keep the state in Republican hands until 2020. The state’s electorate has generally backed leaders who, if not out in front of the wave of change, at least kept the wave in sight

    “I do think at one point it would be the penchant for the practical that is certainly very important if you were looking at the entire 20th century, that was the case. NC was definitely a southern state, but at the same time it was a state that was willing to be innovative in ways others were not, and one of the themes of the study is that people make a difference, and there were people who emerged at particular times and did lead NC in a different direction from the country as a whole.”

Tom Eamon is a political science professor at East Carolina University. His book “The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory” is published by UNC Press. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.