Thanks, Joe

Joe Biden is the shot in the arm America needs now.

Regular Joe. Amtrak Joe. Joey from Scranton.

He’s the first President named Joe. Which is odd, because Joe is such an American name. GI Joe, Joltin’ Joe, Joe Louis.

We needed a Regular Joe to chase out anger, bile and bitterness with decency, empathy and kindness.

Exactly a year ago, Joe seemed destined to be a three-time presidential loser, a joke, a gabby old geezer who hung around too long.

Then, Jim Clyburn and Black Democrats in South Carolina saved his candidacy – and our country. The Democratic Party nominated the one candidate who could win in 2020.

Biden has taken life’s blows – and bounced back. He is the right President for a nation that has been battered – by Trump for four years, by a vicious virus for the last year, by vicious lies about the election for two months and by white supremacists’ violent attack on the Capitol two weeks ago.

The Capitol survived, and there stood President Biden Wednesday, proclaiming, “at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Chris Wallace of Fox News said Biden’s speech was the best Inaugural address he’d heard, and he’d heard every one from John Kennedy on. Those speeches are often forced and overdone; Biden’s was simple, direct and genuine. He was realistic but, above all, he was optimistic.

It was a speech perfect for the moment. Then Amanda Gorman added the exclamation point:

“When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Thanks, Joe, for leading us out of the shade and into the light. Thanks, Joe, for Vice President Kamala Harris and for breaking all those barriers. Thanks, Joe and Kamala, for your families – close and loving, happy, blended and, yes, interracial.

Biden ended his speech with this:

“So, with purpose and resolve we turn to the tasks of our time.

Sustained by faith. Driven by conviction. And, devoted to one another and to this country we love with all our hearts.

May God bless America and may God protect our troops.

Thank you, America.”

Thank you, Mr. President.

Governor Cooper Issues a Post-Trump Challenge

As an old speechwriter, I’m a close reader of political speeches. Especially important speeches, like Governor Roy Cooper’s inaugural address.

Little noted in news coverage of the speech was an unmistakable message the Governor sent to North Carolinians – and to Republican politicians in Raleigh – in the wake of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and the big-lie attack on the 2020 election.

The day after the invasion of the Capitol, Cooper had called for President Trump to resign or be removed. Two days later, his inaugural speech called on North Carolinians to renounce Trumpism.

Cooper’s speech was short, less than 900 words and just seven minutes. But four times in his brief address, the Governor warned against what he framed as threats to democracy.

The speech largely followed familiar inaugural forms. He began by thanking his family, and he closed with a Bible verse. He reviewed the “triumphs and trials” of his first term. He reflected on history, how the state recovered from the Spanish flu pandemic in the 1920s. He proclaimed that “just as we did one hundred years ago — North Carolina is ready to roar again.”

The speech was sprinkled with appeals for bipartisanship and cooperation. But as Cooper extended a hand, he also flashed a fist.

He said the “trials” of the last four years included “earthquakes…that shook the very foundation of our democracy.”

A challenge we face now, he said, is “overcoming disinformation and lies and recommitting to the truth.”

He added, “We can respect our disagreements, but we must cherish our democracy.”

The Governor called for “a new era…where we can acknowledge and work around our differences while refusing to sacrifice truth and facts at the altar of ideology. Where the dangerous events that took place at our nation’s Capitol can never be justified.”

After those references to lies, ideology, disinformation and dangers to democracy, he sounded a friendly note: “Hey, let’s cast aside notions of red counties or blue counties and recognize that these are artificial divisions…. These times of triumph and trial have shown us that we are more connected than we ever imagined.”

Cooper is by temperament deliberate and soft-spoken, more comfortable with conciliation than confrontation. His words weren’t harsh, and his tone wasn’t strident. But his message was clear.

I know how much deliberation and debate go into such speeches. I had a hand in Governor Jim Hunt’s four inaugural addresses. Words matter.

Four years ago, a winter storm robbed Cooper’s first inauguration of the usual pomp, parade and parties. This year, it was the Covid storm.

Stormy times face the Governor the next four years. Just as in his first term, the General Assembly and Council of State are dominated by Republicans who disagree with his politics, policies and priorities.

The differences took the stage at the inaugural ceremony. Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson took his oath without a mask on a day when 11,581 more North Carolinians came down with Covid.

Governor Cooper talked about the challenges of “emerging from this pandemic smarter and stronger than ever,” “educating our people and ensuring that every North Carolinian gets health care” and “forming a more perfect North Carolina, where every person has opportunity and access to the liberty that they deserve and our laws promise.”

And he challenged North Carolina to defend democracy and move on from the disinformation and divisiveness of the Trump era.

Years ago, during Vietnam and Watergate, Richard Nixon claimed he spoke for the “Silent Majority.” This year, in an even more trying and troubled time for America, Governor Cooper spoke for the Decent Majority.

Terry Sanford and JFK

Let’s recall a nobler inauguration month.

Just before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, I wrote about Governor Terry Sanford’s inauguration speech in January 1961. He summoned North Carolinians to “give our children the quality of education which they need to keep up in this rapidly advancing, scientific, complex world.”

That speech 60 years ago was the subject of a recent column in The Washington Post by John Drescher, former executive editor at The News & Observer and now a national politics editor at the Post. His column was “How a Courageous Southern Governor Broke Ranks with Segregationists in 1961.”

Drescher wrote:

“Sixty years ago, as Southern governors criticized civil rights protests and fought integration, one broke ranks and gave a remarkable inauguration address: He called for equal opportunities for all his state’s residents.

“North Carolina’s Terry Sanford, then 43 years old, was one of the first major Southern politicians to endorse John F. Kennedy for president. The two Democrats — energetic World War II veterans born three months apart — campaigned together across North Carolina in the fall of 1960. Sanford won the governor’s race and helped Kennedy carry the state in that nail-biting election.

“Eight weeks later, with Kennedy’s brother Robert in the audience, Sanford took to the stage of Raleigh’s crowded Memorial Auditorium, bedecked with red, white and blue bunting, and gave his first address as governor.”

Drescher noted that “Sanford spoke only a few sentences on issues of race.” But Sanford said more than any other Southern governor dared:

“We are not going to forget, as we move into the challenging and demanding years ahead, that no group of our citizens can be denied the right to participate in the opportunities of first-class citizenship,”

Drescher wrote a great book, “Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of Segregation and Reshaped the South” (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). The book tells how Sanford won the 1960 election, prevailing in a Democratic runoff against I. Beverly Lake, who advocated shutting down schools instead of desegregating them.

The book is a must-read if you want to understand those times – and how Sanford made North Carolina different from much of the South.

Drescher’s column – and the photo that ran with it, posted here – recalls the dramatic change that Sanford and JFK embodied.

They were two young, vigorous new leaders. Both were 43 years old. Both were World War II veterans, wounded in battle and decorated for bravery. Both were challenging the state and the nation to change, do better and get moving again.

The photo shows how different they were from the generation before them, men who by contrast seemed old, gray and tired. Behind them are North Carolina’s Senators – Everett Jordan at left and Sam Ervin at right. In the middle is Luther Hodges, Sanford’s predecessor as Governor.

President Kennedy appointed Hodges U.S. Secretary of Commerce at Sanford’s request. Sanford had no love lost for Hodges, but Bert Bennett, Sanford’s 1960 campaign manager, told me once, “we wanted to get Hodges the hell out of North Carolina.”

Sanford had broken with Hodges and most Southern Democrats and endorsed Kennedy in 1960. It was a political risk. That’s why Robert Kennedy came to Sanford’s inauguration. The year before, RFK had come to Raleigh appealing for Sanford’s endorsement.

The Kennedys needed one Southerner to endorse the Massachusetts Catholic for President. They needed to show support in the South to beat Lyndon Johnson.

Sanford did it, and 12 of the North Carolina delegates joined him. “The Dirty Dozen,” they were dubbed. Sanford gave a seconding speech for Kennedy at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.

Harrison Hickman, who was the pollster for Sanford’s winning 1986 Senate race, recalls a story Sanford told: When Kennedy asked him to make the speech, Sanford said, “You just want somebody up there with a Southern accent.” Kennedy laughed, “No, I want somebody up there who’s younger than me.”

Kennedy was born in May 1917; Sanford, in August.

As Drescher noted, Sanford campaigned with Kennedy in North Carolina in September 1960. For some reason, the two candidates changed cars in Raleigh’s Glenwood Village before going to Reynolds Coliseum, where Kennedy spoke. My mother Becky took me, my younger brother Kevin and my baby brother Fred there. Somehow, she pushed our way to the cars, and I got to shake JFK’s hand.

Unlike Bill Clinton, I neglected to get a photo of that historic moment. But it’s imprinted in my memory. As are the hope and idealism that Kennedy and Sanford inspired when they were inaugurated 60 years ago this month.

Link to Drescher’s column:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/01/01/terry-sanford-north-carolina-race-segregation/

Link to Drescher’s book:
https://www.amazon.com/Triumph-Good-Will-Champion-Segregation/dp/1578063108

The Day That Shook America

Wednesday, January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy, along with 9/11, November 22, 1963 and December 7, 1941.

This time, unlike Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the attack on America didn’t come from a foreign enemy or foreign terrorists. It came from American terrorists.

Unlike John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it wasn’t the work of a lone, twisted gunman. It was the work of thousands of twisted, hate-filled vigilantes who connected online and conspired to invade Washington on January 6, take down the government and take over America. “The Storm,” they called it.

They came close. They seized the Capitol and shut down Congress. They killed a policeman. They ransacked the center and symbol of our republic, posed smugly for pictures and stole anything they could carry.

They were incited by President Trump. They waved Confederate flags and Trump flags. At least one of them carried North Carolina’s state flag.

They could have blown up the building. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “Some of them had backpacks bigger than my desk.”

Some of them had zip ties and ropes. They could have taken hostages and threatened to kill them one by one until Congress overturned the election.

Capitol police weren’t prepared. They reportedly delayed asking for reinforcements. That must be investigated. But outnumbered and overwhelmed officers saved the lives of members of Congress, staff members, journalists and visitors.

What now?

The thugs aren’t going to “stand down.” They believe the election was stolen. Trump told them it was stolen. Members of Congress say it was stolen. Their media says it was stolen.

If they believe that, they believe that, as Barry Goldwater said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

In the end, the terrorists didn’t stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But six Republicans in the Senate and 121 in the House, a majority of House Republicans, voted to block electors from Arizona. Seven senators and 138 House members voted against electors from Pennsylvania.

They denounced the attack. But do their words and votes encourage and embolden the attackers?

We averted a violent coup. But how close did we come to a political coup? Trump wanted Vice President Mike Pence to summarily reject state’s electors. Pence refused, but what if he hadn’t? Could Congress have stopped him?

Republicans now face a challenge: disavow Trump – or keep kowtowing to him and his supporters.

Democrats love to hate Senator Mitch McConnell. But he gave a powerful speech on the floor. He warned, “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We would never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost.”

Minutes later, the “scramble for power at any cost” reached the doors of the Senate. Police hurried McConnell and other Senators out of the chamber just before rioters stormed in.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah declared, “What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.”

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina said, “The President bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories.”

For 216 years, since John Adams stepped aside for Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Americans congratulated themselves with a comfortable cliché: “the peaceful transition of power.”

Not this time.

Let’s hope we do better next time. And let’s resolve that our system will survive until next time.

Two Americas

This week we saw America at its best and America at its worst.

We saw our democracy at work and our republic under attack.

In Georgia, peaceful Americans elected a Black man and a Jewish man to the United States Senate.

In Washington, armed thugs incited by Donald Trump invaded the Capitol and shut down Congress.

At the beginning of the Civil War 160 years ago, Ulysses S. Grant wrote in a letter to his father and sister, “There are but two parties now, traitors and patriots, and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter, and I trust, the stronger party.”

So it is in America today.

I don’t agree with those who blame Wednesday’s insurrection on all Republicans who supported Trump. But blame attaches to anyone who echoes Trump’s lies that the election was stolen.

I don’t buy the “what-about-ism” that equates last year’s racial protests with trashing our nation’s capital and attacking our government. Violence and lawlessness are always wrong, but overturning elections and our Constitution is treason.

I suspect that if this week’s protesters had been Black, many more of them would have been shot and killed.

When Trump was inaugurated four years ago, he said, “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” His Presidency now ends in the carnage he encouraged. This is his legacy.

We expected the worst from him. It’s worse than we expected.

When he leaves Washington, his armed thugs won’t disappear. They’ll stand by. After all, he “loves” them and they’re “special people.”

This is a time for choosing.

Is our nation to be governed by voters or by mobs? By elections or by insurrections?

Are we to be traitors? Or patriots?

Like Grant, I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter, and I trust, the stronger party.

North Carolina Has Taken a Wrong Turn

Sixty years ago this week, a new Governor set North Carolina on a new course.

In his inauguration speech on January 5, 1961, Terry Sanford said the state should build its future not on low taxes, but on better education. Calling education “the rock upon which I will build the house of my administration,” he said:

“We must give our children the quality of education which they need to keep up in this rapidly advancing, scientific, complex world.

“They must be prepared to compete with the best in the nation, and I dedicate my public life to the proposition that education must be of a quality which is second to none. A second-rate education can only mean a second-rate future for North Carolina.”

For 50 years, North Carolina kept to that course under Sanford, Democratic Governors Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue and Roy Cooper and Republican Governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford

The state became a leader in the South and the nation. It became one of the best places in America to live and work. People from across the country and around the world flocked here.

But in 2010 we took a new turn. It was a wrong turn and the wrong path for our future.

The legislature retreated from North Carolina’s commitment to public education and public-school teachers. Legislators shortchanged public schools and shifted public tax dollars to private schools. They skimped on teacher pay and demonized and demoralized public-school teachers.

The Southern Regional Education Board says teachers in North Carolina today earn 25.3% per week less than similarly educated professionals.

Some legislators and their supporters call public schools “government schools.” Their hostility is obvious.

Today, we need a renewed debate over the right way forward. It’s the same debate Sanford sparked.

In 1957, then-Governor Luther Hodges proposed tax cuts and tax breaks for business and industry. Hodges was a businessman himself, a retired textile executive. He was comfortable in boardrooms, and he was successful in recruiting businesses to North Carolina.

In their book “Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress and Outrageous Ambitions” (Duke University Press, 1999), Howard Covington and Marion Ellis called Hodges’s plan “trickle-down.” The theory was, “If business and industry expanded…then the state’s tax base would expand and there would be more money for schools and other state services.”

Sanford quickly challenged Hodges. Tossing aside a prepared speech on constitutional revisions to a Young Democrats meeting, he called the Governor’s approach “dangerously wrong.”

He said the state instead should raise standards of education. That would attract jobs and industry.

Sanford believed North Carolinians would pay higher taxes for better schools. At one campaign stop, he was asked how he’d pay for his plan. Seeing no reporters, Sanford replied, “From taxes.”

The crowd applauded. Sanford beamed. Later, his no-nonsense campaign manager Bert Bennett told him, “They thought you said Texas.”

But Sanford meant taxes. He supported a $100 million (big bucks then) increase in school spending – a 22% pay raise for teachers, the hiring of 2,800 new teachers, more libraries and school supplies and the beginning of the community college system.

To pay for it all, he won a bitter battle to levy the sales tax on food, which became known as “Terry’s tax.” The tax hurt him politically. But he got the job done. It wasn’t a “hold the line” budget, he said, it was a “line of departure.”

North Carolina took off.

We hear the same debate in Raleigh today: low taxes or better schools. The legislature now is, as Sanford said then, “dangerously wrong.” We need to set our course right again.

One Resolution and Three Remembrances

“Don’t write about Trump all the time.”

That’s the typically pithy advice I got from Frank Daniels Jr., former publisher of The News & Observer, after Donald Trump took office in 2017.

Frank was warning me not to do what many political analysts, bloggers and commentators did: set their hair on fire about Trump’s every tweet, insult or outrage.

Following his advice was hard, both when I was blogging at Talking About Politics with Carter Wrenn and after I started blogging and writing a weekly newspaper column here at New Day for NC in August 2019.

Even now, as Trump’s time winds down, he stays in our heads, on the tongues of talking heads and at the fingertips of political writers.

It’s time for us to stop.

He won’t. He’ll never stop invading our space. But we don’t have to let him own it.

My resolution for 2021 is to move on. Surely, I’ll write some about Trump and more about Trumpism. But he won’t own the debate here.

Instead, I begin the year by honoring three political leaders who died in December. Two were Democrats, one a Republican. Two were North Carolinians, one was from Mississippi.

All three represented the best of politics and public service.

Marc Basnight

When Marc died this week after a long struggle with ALS, the coverage and commentary focused on his record 18 years as Senate leader, his dogged and devoted service to the Outer Banks and his contributions to the state as a whole – to clean water, cancer research, public schools, and the university system.

Basnight surveys storm damage

All the plaudits are deserved. But I think more about what a unique character Marc was.

He had a high-school education, but he read widely and avidly studied history. He could talk easily to anybody, with his Hoi Toide accent. He also could relentlessly badger Governors and bully bureaucrats to get somebody a job, get a road fixed or get help for “the little guy.”

He was unpretentious. When he came to his first Board of Transportation meeting in 1977, he wore a colorful sweater, boat shoes and “Outer Banks Argyles” – no socks. He had to borrow a blazer for the board’s formal photo.

He was a powerful ally for Governor Jim Hunt from 1993-2000, especially in the four years when Republicans controlled the House.

Even when he was one of the most powerful men in the state, you’d find him at his restaurant on the causeway – Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café (the she-crab soup is awesome) – pouring iced tea and chatting with customers. Once he spent a long time talking with our son and daughter about their schools and the importance of a good education.

Marc took flak for getting better roads to OBX. Good for him. We live there part-time, and the drive that used to take five or six hours from Raleigh now takes three and some change.

Marc’s old district has gone hard right and is solidly Republican now. There was local flak when the new bridge over Oregon Inlet was named for him.

The Marc Basnight bridge sweeps out over the sound and soars into the sky. Naming it for Marc was right. It reminds us that seemingly ordinary people can rise to extraordinary heights – and lift up a lot of other people.

William Winter

Winter may not be familiar to North Carolinians. He was something hard to imagine today, a progressive Democratic Governor of Mississippi who championed education reform and racial fairness.

Winter fought ignorance and injustice from 1947, when he won a seat in the Mississippi House, until he died in December at age 97.

He ran for Governor twice before winning in 1979. Mississippi Governors could serve only one term; he dedicated his to sweeping reform of the state’s dismal public schools. Against the odds, he prevailed.

He lost a race for Senate in 1984. He never ran again for office, but also never stopped working for racial reconciliation – and for removing Confederate images from the state flag.

I remember Governor Winter from governors’ conferences when I worked for Governor Jim Hunt. He was a quiet man with an aura of dignity and decency.

He was one of an impressive cohort of progressive Southern Governors then – Hunt, South Carolina’s Dick Riley, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Georgia’s George Busbee, Florida’s Lawton Childs and Reuben Askew, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and a young guy from Arkansas named Clinton.

They don’t make many Southern governors like them anymore. And even fewer leaders like William Winters.

David Flaherty

Flaherty was the Republican candidate for Governor against Jim Hunt in 1976. He had been Governor Jim Holshouser’s Secretary of Human Resources. That’s probably the toughest Cabinet department to manage.

Democrats in the legislature made it tougher. They didn’t like Republicans and they didn’t like Yankees. Flaherty was from Massachusetts and still had the accent.

I met him when I worked at the N&O, and I worked against him after I joined the Hunt campaign on January 1, 1976 – 45 years ago today. We ran into each other several times in the campaign. He was always friendly and affable – a happy warrior.

He lost badly. It was a bad year for Republicans, right after Watergate. They were split between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter carried North Carolina, the last time that happened until Barack Obama in 2008.

Flaherty later served as NC GOP party chair, including during the 1984 Hunt-Helms Senate race. He gave us hell, and he got a good measure of revenge.

Under Governor Jim Martin, Flaherty headed the Employment Security Commission and, again, the Department of Human Resources.

His path intersected Governor Hunt’s again in the 1990s, when Flaherty served as Caldwell County Manager. Republicans were resisting Hunt’s Smart Start program. But Flaherty liked Smart Start. He even testified in support of it, as I recall, in the legislature.

He was willing to set aside old battles on behalf of new ideas.

When he died in December, I praised him on Facebook as a good man and a dedicated public servant. A former Republican legislator added: “Back when there was sanity in politics.”

Maybe 2021 will bring back sanity in politics.

2022 Senate Race May Fuel Family Fights

A “transition” is the time after an election when you stop fighting your enemies and start fighting your friends.

This year, Donald Trump’s attacks on the election have kept Democrats and Republicans fighting each other. But the fights within each party also have begun, or will soon.

Nationally, moderate and liberal Democrats have tussled over President-elect Biden’s appointments. Republicans largely are holding their fire over the party’s future until Trump leaves office, although some are distancing themselves from him.

One battleground for both parties could be the 2022 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina. Democrats already are sparring over it. A herd of Republicans may run, including Lara Trump and a couple of congressmen.

We assume it will be an open-seat race. But there are rumors and rumblings that Senator Richard Burr might step down before his term ends. He has been under federal investigation for insider-stock trading. If he resigns, the Republican state executive committee will nominate three replacements, and Governor Roy Cooper will select one.

Senator Richard Burr
Senator Burr

For North Carolina Democrats, 2022 will bring debate and perhaps definition about the character and direction of the party.

Future Democratic candidates likely will be urban, younger, Black, female and a click or two farther left of center than in the past. Think Josh Stein, Anthony Foxx and Cheri Beasley instead of Roy Cooper, Kay Hagan and Cal Cunningham.

Cunningham is a special sore point with some Democrats. And not just because he torpedoed what looked like a sure Senate win in 2020.

Black and progressive Democrats resent how Senator Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee anointed Cunningham. The critics think he was picked because he fit a certain mold: white, male, good hair, a veteran, moderate and no real voting record to attack.

His defeat prompted one progressive Democrat to write me: “Democrats in NC would be wise to re-think their approach to winning US Senate races.”

He noted that there are 800,000 eligible but unregistered voters of color in the state, 500,000 of whom are Black. Georgia went Democratic this year because Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for Governor in 2018, led a drive to register 800,000 first-time voters.

North Carolina Democrats, essentially, are split over whether they should embrace a more urban electorate or try to hold on to rural and small-town voters who have become decidedly Republican.

North Carolina Republicans feel no urgency to change. As one said, “we’re winning.” They lost races for Governor and Attorney General, but did well in judicial races, the Council of State and the legislature. And Trump carried North Carolina, narrowly.

“New look” Democrats argue that today’s voters are younger, more diverse, more urban, more likely to come from outside the state and more likely to have college degrees. They say Trump has badly hurt Republicans among college-educated voters and that rural “red” voters are lost to Democrats.

Some Democrats believe a more urban, university-educated electorate is moving North Carolina toward a Democratic tipping point. They want to accelerate it.

As the progressive Democrat told me, Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 showed “the power of a candidate who can both inspire Black voters and appeal to the white voters traditionally available to Democrats.”

He added, “It requires, though, that the candidate and campaign have cross-cultural competence and the ability to speak credibly, creatively and passionately about the common interests of groups that wedge politics have driven apart.”

Trump’s gravitational pull muted conflicts in both parties in 2020. That will change in 2022.

What Would Terry Sanford Do?

North Carolina has been through tense, racially troubled times before. What happened 60 years ago should give us hope.

Racism is bad now. It was even more pervasive then.

But North Carolina had a governor, Terry Sanford, who stood up against racial discrimination when other Southern governors were standing in schoolhouse doors to keep out black students.

Governor Sanford

Sanford was elected in 1960. That February, the sit-in movement had begun in Greensboro. The civil rights movement was on the rise, and so was the virulent, violent resistance of whites in the South.

In the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered then in a heavily Democratic state, Sanford defeated I. Beverly Lake, an avowed segregationist. Lake had come to political fame fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against school segregation. He said North Carolina should shut down public schools before integrating them.

Sanford had to thread a political needle; most white North Carolinians opposed desegregation. But he declared that the state should obey the law of the land.

As Governor, he went farther. He sent his son and daughter to an integrated Raleigh elementary school. It was token integration; there was one black student, Bill Campbell, who later became mayor of Atlanta. But Sanford’s decision was symbolic.

He prodded business and municipal leaders to desegregate cafeterias, theaters and other businesses. He desegregated state parks. And he spoke up.

In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated Governor of Alabama, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Governor Sanford spoke four days later to the North Carolina Press Association – knowing he would get widespread news coverage:

The time has come for American citizens…to quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to higher standards for himself and all men….

We can do this. We should do this….We will do it because it is honest and fair for us to give all men and women their best chance in life.”

His language in 1963 – “Negro” and “all men” – may be jarring today. It was revolutionary then. A black newspaper in Los Angeles headlined: “NC Governor (That’s Right!) Urges Equality.”

Sanford never called out the National Guard, though he sometimes had to send in State Troopers to keep peace. He didn’t feel a need to prove his toughness. He had been an Army paratrooper in World War II. He fought in Europe, was wounded and decorated for bravery.

His instinct wasn’t to crack down; it was to sit down with protesters and listen to them. He created a Good Neighbor Council where blacks and whites could talk together and work together.

That was always his way. He became President of Duke University in 1970, just as Vietnam War protests were erupting. Other college presidents called in police and shut down campuses. Sanford invited protesters into his office and heard them out.

Early in his presidency, more than a thousand students rallied and declared they were going to take over the Administration Building. Sanford joined the crowd. “Take me with you,” he said. “I’ve been trying to occupy it for a month.”

Sanford had an optimistic faith in young people. He’d be gratified today to see so many young people of all races joining protests against racism and police brutality. Photos from the early 1960s usually show white teenagers jeering, shouting and spitting at black protesters.

He’d also be proud of Governor Roy Cooper.

Sanford turned North Carolina in a new direction.

Today, we are called again to overcome hate, bigotry and injustice. Let’s ask ourselves: What would Terry do?

Protests and Politics Echo 1968

Downtown Raleigh Saturday night
N&O photo, Robert Willett

2020 feels like 1968.

Peaceful protests erupt into looting and burning. Police battle demonstrators in the streets. Black Americans vent their rage and frustration.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis lit the fires. This year, it was the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis.

In 1968, the nation was already divided by the Vietnam war – and protests against the war. This year, our nerves were already rubbed raw by the Covid pandemic, the economic meltdown, stay-home orders – and protests against the orders.

Then, as now, there was the sickening sense that the floor under American society was collapsing.

1968, like 2020, was a big election year. 1968 ended 36 years of Democratic dominance in Washington, since FDR’s election in 1932. It ushered in an era – more than half a century now – dominated by a Republican Party dependent on white Southerners and dedicated to the proposition that government is the problem, not the solution.

In 1968, an anguished President was trapped inside the White House by protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Four years after winning a historic landslide, he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. His dream of a Great Society slipped away.

Today inside a White House again surrounded by protesters, an angry President lashes out at critics, the media and political opponents. Four years after winning a historic upset, he fears his dream of a smashing reelection victory fueled by a rising economy is slipping away.

In 1968, Democrats’ election hopes were shattered when their national convention in Chicago exploded in violence. This year, the Republican convention will be in Charlotte, assuming the city and state can come to terms with the Republican Party and President Trump over Covid precautions.

They also must consider the risk that Charlotte could attract a volatile mix of protesters against racism, “tyranny”-protesting Reopeners and camo-clad white nationalists waving Confederate flags and wielding assault weapons.

We don’t want Charlotte to be to 2020 what Chicago was to 1968.

Then, the violence in Chicago and the riots nationwide set off a white backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon President. George Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, fanned the flames.

Nixon benefitted from Democratic disarray, Roger Ailes’ TV genius and Strom Thurmond’s Southern Strategy. Republicans began their rise in North Carolina and the South. In 1972, North Carolina elected a Republican governor and a Republican Senator named Jesse Helms.

It almost didn’t happen. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the seemingly hapless Democratic candidate, nearly caught Nixon in the final days.

Former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and his chief political adviser, Bert Bennett, helped lead Humphrey’s national campaign. Bennett said years later that Humphrey would have won with another week.

But he didn’t. Nixon won and promised to “bring us together.” But he didn’t. The Vietnam War dragged on, and our racial divide persists today.

Politics, like life, rarely moves in a straight line. We don’t control events; they control us.

Even people with power – Governor, President, police chief, protest organizer – are no more in control than a ship in a storm is in control of the winds and waves.

A few months ago, we thought this election would be about impeachment and a roaring, soaring economy.

Then a virus kills 101,000 Americans and puts millions out of work.

A white policeman keeps his knee on a black man’s neck for almost nine minutes even after the victim pleads “I can’t breathe.”

An angry protester throws a firebomb.

History pays no attention to human intention.