Christensen: The two sides of Aycock

April 1, 2012 

One hundred years ago Tuesday, Charles Brantley Aycock had just been introduced by the Alabama governor before a capacity audience at the Jefferson Theater in Birmingham to talk about how North Carolina was leading the Southern crusade to improve the public schools.

“When I was governor I made speeches all over North Carolina,” Aycock said. “I canvassed the state for four years on behalf of the education of the children of the state ... sometimes on Sundays they would ask me down to the churches to talk, and I always talked about education.’’

Abruptly, Aycock’s voice stopped and his face grew rigid. He raised one hand and he sank to the floor. The doctors pronounced him dead at age 52.

Three days later, 3,000 people filed past his body as it lay in rotunda of the Capitol in Raleigh, according to his biographer Oliver H. Orr Jr.

Aycock would soon become one of the most celebrated figures in Tar Heel political history. His birthplace in Wayne County is a state historical site. His statue is on the state Capitol grounds. The likeness of Aycock is one of two representing North Carolina in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. His words are etched in stone on the side of the state Education Building. He was frequently quoted by the likes of former Democratic governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt.

When Aycock’s statue was dedicated in Raleigh in 1924, Edwin Alderman, a future UNC president, said, “States, like individuals, have moods of mind.”

“It was Aycock’s good fate,” Alderman said, to be governor in a time of “liberalism and progress.”

Well, not exactly. While Aycock presided during a great push for education, he was also elected in 1900 during a horrific white supremacist campaign, which resulted in the Democratic Party takeover of the state for two-thirds of the 20th century. It also led to the disenfranchisement of most black voters and the imposition of Jim Crow laws.

Aycock was both a progressive leader for education and the voice of white supremacy. One hundred years later, it is difficult to understand that political schizophrenia, but in 1900 some progressives argued that whites should be in charge of the government.

Aycock’s reputation has suffered in recent years, as his accomplishments as the “educational governor” have receded and his role in the white supremacy campaigns has become more prominent.

The state Democratic Party, after honoring Aycock for 50 years with its annual Vance-Aycock fundraising dinner in Asheville, last year voted to remove Aycock’s name from the dinner because of his involvement in the racist campaigns.

How does one weigh a public figure’s accomplishments versus his mistakes? While Aycock lent his voice to the white supremacy campaigns in 1898 and 1900, as governor in 1901, he blocked efforts to drastically cut funding for segregated black schools. And how does one sit in judgment in 2012 of events of a century ago in what was a very racist era?

And what should one do about the Democrats’ other major fundraising event, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, named after two slaveholders?

In just a few short years, Aycock has gone from being one of the heroes of the Tar Heel Democratic Party to, dare we say, the party’s black sheep.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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