When Pat McCrory accepted the GOP nomination for governor last weekend at the Republican convention, he painted a picture showing that the Old North State just isn’t what it used to be.
The rhetorical device he used was to recall a trip he made to the Legislative Building as a fifth-grader in 1967.
“I remember thinking at that time, I am so proud of North Carolina,” he told the convention. “I respected North Carolina. I respected the government of North Carolina. At that time in North Carolina, we had a very low unemployment rate. We had low taxes. We were known for ethical government. We were building things, factories throughout North Carolina. Things were going well for our state.”
“Now I look at the leadership in the executive branch, and I don’t see the North Carolina I grew up in,” McCrory said.
To a certain extent, McCrory was correct about the 1960s – taxes were lower, unemployment was lower before the textile, furniture and tobacco industries collapsed, and the state had a better reputation for ethics – although politics was hardly pristine in an age of contributions made in brown paper bags and when campaigns were given free corporate planes, credit cards, and billboards.
But much of McCrory’s talk about the good ol’ days – even allowing for political hyperbole – simply does not hold up under closer inspection.
Last in manufacturing wages
North Carolina in 1968 was dead last in the country in manufacturing wages – the same position it held in 1960.
A state Division of Commerce report found that many industrialists fought any effort to bring in new companies for fear of “unionism, higher wages, and pirating of labor.”
The Tar Heel state’s population grew 9 percent in the 1960s, less than the national rate, and in 1971, Democratic Gov. Bob Scott said he hoped the growth rate would slow down because “North Carolina does not need its cities to become gigantic, overpopulated urban jungles.”
In 1970, Charlotte was North Carolina’s largest city, with 241,420 people. It has since tripled in size to 731,000.
There has also been some talk during the campaign that North Carolina is no longer the so-called “good roads state” it once was.
Back in 1967, when things “were going well for the state,” there were very few interstate highways or urban loops in North Carolina.
Old dirt roads
But there were plenty of dirt roads – about one of every third road. In 1970, North Carolina had 73,993 miles of roads, of which 23,400 were not paved. By 2010, there were 79,328 miles of road with only 4,497 unpaved.
I have been going through the papers of Gov. Robert W. Scott (1969-73), and they are filled with letters of people telling stories of roads being shut in winter for a couple of weeks or roads so narrow that in rain, if one car tried to pass another, they often wound up in a ditch.
One letter was from Bobbie K. Chapman, a textile mechanic from Lincolnton, who wrote to Scott in September 1969, about his mile-and-a-half road that served 13 houses. He wrote that it had not been improved since his grandfather drove his horse and wagon on it.
He had one car, which he kept four years, that he had to take to the machine shop six times to have it welded and reinforced because the road was so rough on the steering and suspension parts. A farm tractor has to be used to clear the road of snow to make it passable during the winter. After a heavy rain, the road was covered by 1 to 2 inches of slick red mud.
There has been a lot of concern about today’s high school dropout rate – as there should be. The state has come a long way, but back in 1970, when “things were going well for the state,” only 39 percent of adult North Carolinians had a high school diploma. Now that’s a dropout rate. By 2010, 85 percent of North Carolinians had a high school diploma.
North Carolina had yet to start its kindergarten system back in 1967, let alone preschool programs. Most North Carolina students still attended segregated schools in 1967.
Back in 1967, college was only for the few. Only 9 percent of adult North Carolinians had a college degree in 1970, compared with 27 percent today.
While SAT college board scores have fallen nationally during that period, in North Carolina they have risen – from 956 combined score in 1972 to 1,008 in 2010. Not much of a jump, but an improvement.
McCrory shouldn’t be judged too harshly. He was only a fifth-grader in 1967. He’s allowed some political rhetoric. He had some points about unemployment and taxes.
But even in the middle of political campaigns, we should look at things clear-eyed and not through rose-colored glasses about when “things were going well for the state.”
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