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.

The Check is in the Mail?

As Washington debates what to do next about the economic crisis, it should think about one thing Washington does well.

I know what that is, because I see it every month. The second Wednesday of every month. That’s the day my Social Security is deposited in my checking account.

Democrats especially might think about this.

If they win big this year, they’ll want to do something big next year. Something that works. Something that lasts.

They’d like to do something that doesn’t get them thrown out of town in 2022, which is what usually happens when Democrats do something big in Washington. Remember when Presidents Clinton and Obama tried to do health care reform their first years in office? Democrats lost big in the next mid-term elections.

A lot of ideas are floating around as the economy sinks deeper: billions for state and local governments to fill budget holes, billions for hospitals and health care, Medicare for All, an infrastructure jobs plan, renewable energy investments, worker protections and – yes – more direct checks to Americans.

Congress already sent one round of checks. Many Americans got – or were supposed to get – one-time $1,200 checks.

The stimulus efforts had problems. Big businesses got money intended for small businesses. Small businesses couldn’t make heads nor tails of what they did get and how they could and couldn’t use the money. Some gave up and sent the money back. Some didn’t get a dime.

There are charges of fraud and favoritism, corruption and cronyism, slowness and sluggishness, bureaucratic bungling and blundering.

That happens when you throw trillions of dollars at a problem in a hurry.

Why not throw the money into the hands of the American people? Let them decide how to spend it. Let the magic of the market work.

Apparently, many people will go immediately to a barbershop or hair salon. Or a bar. They’ll pay rent, buy groceries, get the car fixed, buy clothes and stock up on toilet paper. They’ll shop local. They’ll invest in America.

This isn’t a new idea born in the pandemic. It was the whole idea behind Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yang called it a “Universal Basic Income.” He proposed sending every American a check for $1,000 a month. Not just once, but forever. No income ceiling, no means-testing, no fuss, no muss. Just a monthly check.

Andrew Yang: send checks

Where would the money come from? Yang said Americans’ jobs and futures are being uprooted by new technology, so companies benefitting from technology – like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – should pay higher taxes. They get rich collecting and selling our personal information, he said; shouldn’t they pay us back?

Some Republicans might go along. Senator Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican from Missouri, has proposed monthly payments of $1,400-$2,200 for families for the duration of the emergency. He said families “need guaranteed, accessible, and rapid relief.”

Billionaire Mark Cuban proposed $1,000 payments every two weeks to all 128 million households. The money would have to be spent within 10 days, not saved. He said, “No amount of loans to businesses will save them or jobs if their customers aren’t buying.”

It’s the opposite of trickledown. Cuban called it “trickle up.”

Yes, some will call it socialism. Opponents called Social Security socialism. But that doesn’t seem to bother us. Social Security is still around almost 90 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt started it.

Once Americans get a check, they might get to liking it. It works for me, anyway.