Point of View

Which way, North Carolina?

November 9, 2012 

North Carolina, by virtue of its geography, has always stood at the edge of the American South, looking both across the nation and within its region for direction. The state was one of the last to secede in the Civil War but may well have contributed more troops and more casualties to the Confederate cause than any other. A century later, North Carolina was spared much of the most brutal violence in the civil rights movement, but dragged its heels badly on school desegregation.

In recent decades, North Carolinians regularly elected both Jim Hunt, a moderate governor who was a national leader on education issues, and Jesse Helms, an avowed hard-line conservative and isolationist. Clearly, North Carolina is a state with a long history of both progressive and reactionary impulses pulling it toward a sense of insular regional identity and a desire for national recognition and respect.

Today, North Carolina seems to be listening more to the call of the Deep South. In May, we became the most recent state to enshrine discrimination against same-sex couples in our constitution, even as, this week, three states just voted for marriage equality. In recent days, as our neighbor Virginia has become more “purple” and “blue” in its electoral map, North Carolina elected an increasingly conservative legislature created through clever and even cynical gerrymandering of district lines.

After decades of striving to embrace a more diverse population and nurture a vibrantly transformative economy, many North Carolinians – especially in the rural counties – are fighting a rear guard action to return to a past that never really existed and control a present that continues to change before their eyes.

The history of our state reveals that when we embrace the challenges and opportunities of our changing nation, rather than retreating into a defensive posture of regional defiance, North Carolinians prosper economically and culturally. Throughout the past century North Carolina has made public investments in roads, universities and even a symphony orchestra and an art museum. Building that physical and intellectual infrastructure has attracted investments and residents from across the nation; these men and women see the state as a great place to live, work, build homes and raise their children. The creation of the Research Triangle Park in 1959 stands as an exemplar of what this state can accomplish when it looks toward being not only a regional but also a national leader in public-private partnerships and technological innovation.

The Triangle area has blossomed with transplants from throughout the nation and the world. We may talk funny but our efforts and purchasing power have helped North Carolina grow from just another chronically poor Southern state into one of the 10 largest economies in the nation.

As someone who has studied and taught history for more than a quarter of a century, I am certainly not telling native North Carolinians to turn their backs on their state’s rich culture and heritage. There are many inspiring stories of courage and ingenuity, as well as struggles against prejudice and bigotry, that all deserve our attention.

But the legacy of North Carolina lies in more than ancestor worship or a pugnacious claim that we want to uphold some mythical version of moonlight and magnolias. North Carolina may be different from “Yankeedom,” but The Old North State is also different from many other Southern states – in some fascinating and even strange ways – always has been, always will be. When we leverage our state’s unique geographic and historic gifts, and think boldly about being a national leader in fields like education and technology, we create a more prosperous future for all North Carolinians.

David A. Zonderman is a professor of history at N.C. State University.

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