The Racist Nursery of N.C.'s Progressive Political Tradition
What is the great paradox of North Carolina politics? The answer you would get from most political observers is, "The paradox is how our state could during the same time period elect Jesse Helms four times to the U.S. Senate and Jim Hunt four times as governor."
Rob Christen-sen's fine book "The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics" helps us understand this paradox.
For me, though, there is another paradox, one that is even harder to understand and explain. It is one that may be a key to getting to the heart of North Carolina's puzzling political history.
Frontis Johnston, my history professor at Davidson, used to tell us that there is one thing that is at the bottom of almost every puzzling thing about Southern history or politics.
And it is race that is at the core of the paradox that bedevils me. It is this: How could the great -progressive tradition of North Carolina politics (that of Kerr Scott, Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt) find its origins in the person of Charles Brantley Aycock, who led the successful effort at the turn of the last century to disenfranchise African-Americans and remove and bar them from almost all public offices?
A formal photograph in Terry Sanford's published papers shows a portrait of Aycock hanging on the wall right behind Sanford's desk. The caption reads, "Gov. Sanford followed in the footsteps of Gov. Charles B. Aycock in stressing education during his administration."
How could Aycock be so right in promoting education and so wrong, at least by today's standards, on race?
That is the big paradox for me.
The easy answer would be, "Well, back then, every white person in the South was racist."
But that is not the whole story. An irony is that the racism of Aycock and his allies was part and parcel of a brand of progressivism that not only strengthened education, but also fostered a spirit of progress that, according to a new book, "turned North Carolina into the 'Wisconsin of the South,' a model of Southern progressivism known for its scientific, or, later, businesslike, management of the state through education, public health, segregation, disenfranchisement, and alcohol prohibition."
The new book, "Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908," by Gregory Downs, explains how the racism and white supremacy appeals that characterized the politics of the Aycock campaign fit with widely accepted intellectual ideas of the day.
These ideas were a mixture of social Darwinism and eugenics that emphasized the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic racial groups and the necessity of state action to foster the continuous improvement of the dominant races. The ideas were a part of "a global selectionist movement" and were taught to Aycock and other future political and educational leaders while they were students at the University of North Carolina.
In the time leading up to Aycock's 1900 campaign, the university invited "hordes of supporters to commencements where they heard speeches on 'Evolution in Politics,' 'Manifest Destiny,' 'The Conquering Race,' and 'The Color Line.'"
"[T]he connection between the university, white supremacy, and Progressivism was obvious to its participants."
This "unholy" blend of racism and progressivism was the platform for North Carolina's economic progress in the early part of the 20th century.
Over time, as racist forms of social Darwinism were discredited by the horrors of Nazi Germany's programs of eugenics and racial dominance, Aycock's admiring -followers purged the racial -theories and campaigned for office on programs based on the idea that society's progress must provide opportunity for every person.
Ironic? Paradoxical? Amazing!
Whatever. We have to concede that North Carolina's progressive political, educational and economic ideas grew up in a racist nursery.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (Sunday, Feb. 20) guest is Minrose Gwin, author of "The Queen of Palmyra."
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