This week, we were arrested at the General Assembly. We chose the path of civil disobedience – along with 29 others – as a means of calling attention to the headlong assault on our state’s history by the governor and the state legislature.
We are not radicals. Each of us has been president of the Organization of American Historians, the leading professional organization of all American historians. We cherish the history we have spent our lives studying. Yet now we see a new generation in Raleigh threatening to destroy the very history we have spent our lives celebrating.
During the last half century, North Carolinians helped pave the way for racial justice, educational leadership and fairness for all citizens.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four freshmen from N.C. A&T went to the downtown Woolworth’s in Greensboro and bought toothpaste at one counter and notebooks at another before sitting down at the lunch counter, their receipts in hand, to ask they be served there as well.
“No way,” said the person behind the counter. The four returned to campus.
The next day there were 23, the day after that 66, the day after that 100 and, on Day 5, 1,000 people. Within two months, similar demonstrations had spread to 54 cities in nine states. The direct action phase of the civil rights movement had begun – in Greensboro.
Eleven months later, a new governor took office in Raleigh. At a time when almost no white parents voluntarily sent their children to desegregated schools, Terry Sanford enrolled his children in a school that black children also attended. He created Good Neighbor Councils in communities across the state where people of different backgrounds could learn to work together. Despite the state’s terrible poverty, Sanford helped make North Carolina’s public education system one of the best in the South.
He supported enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he created a local model of what would later become Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
This was a period when governors of both parties, from Jim Holshouser to Jim Hunt, helped build on that tradition, seeking to move in positive directions to attract outside firms that would pay better wages, hire more skilled workers and improve the state’s economy. These leaders, Republicans as well as Democrats, helped make the Research Triangle Park and cities like Charlotte magnets for out-of-town businesses that came to create new jobs in a state noted for being modern and fair – a good place to live, not just a state with cheap labor and low taxes.
That history is one that our current legislature and governor now seek to reverse: by denying 500,000 people health care through Medicaid, even though it would not cost the state a cent for the first two years; by restricting women’s access to reproductive health care; by terminating unemployment payments for more than 160,000 workers laid off through no fault of their own; by endangering the right to vote of tens of thousands of people through curtailing early voting and requiring state-issued picture IDs; by cutting taxes on the rich, and increasing them on the poor; by telling a father in New Bern that if his daughter chooses to vote in Boone, where she attends Appalachian State, instead of traveling five hours back to New Bern to cast her ballot, the father can no longer claim his daughter as a dependent on his tax return.
This political juggernaut runs totally contrary to what North Carolina has stood for during the last half century. It represents class warfare against the middle class and the working-class residents of our state. Justice lies at the core of our civic life. And we are all responsible for sustaining that justice.
As Robert F. Kennedy told students in apartheid South Africa in 1966, “Each time a [person] stands up ... to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walks of oppression and resistance.”
That is why we stood up, why we got arrested.
Let us hold on to the history we have won.
William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University and the former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall is the Julia Cherry Spruill Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill.