Point of View

Truths and myths about North Carolina

July 26, 2013 

Since the current legislature seems intent on rebranding North Carolina, and since over 50 percent of North Carolinians have come here in the last half century a few historical truths need to be inserted into the mix.

When the new folks came, the state was generally considered to be a progressive one within its region, but that had not been the case through most of its history.

1. North Carolina has been a progressive state.

Prior to 1900, North Carolina was a backward, conservative state. Only in the post-World War II period did North Carolina become a moderate/conservative state, socially and fiscally; a deeply religious state which for years reflected the attitudes of its rural population. Government leaders in North Carolina, whether Democratic or Republican, have steered a course favored by the business and property-owning class.

That class, called by some a “plutocracy,” has favored a political climate that would attract more business and for that same reason supported education and a modern transportation system.

2. The Democrats were thrown out of office after 100 years by the 2012 election.

True, if you don’t know the Democrats who held power from 1900 until the 1960s. Some of the Democratic champions of the modern North Carolina, such as Govs. Charles Brantley Aycock, O. Max Gardner and Sens. like Funifold Simmons and Lee Overman, held deeply conservative views on race with Democrat Overman filibustering anti-lynching legislation. Our Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was cut from the same cloth as Simmons and Overman.

Since 1960, the state has been largely in the hands of moderate politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who were essentially centrists. Labels don’t count; policies and bed-fellows do.

3. North Carolina has always been a state that supported education.

In fact, the K-12 public school system, although endorsed by both parties and the plutocracy, has struggled through most of its existence.

Ten years of education was considered enough until 1946. And North Carolina has consistently lagged behind the nation in per pupil spending: in 1960 it was spending only 63 percent of the national average and only 76 percent of the national average in 2001, still trailing four other Southern states.

In 2011 the General Assembly cut per pupil spending while most other states increased it; we now rank 48. It was the UNC System that held the national reputation, and it was always secure in counting on business community support. It lost that support in approximately 2006.

4. North Carolina was a rural state, but it is now a manufacturing state.

Not true. Tourism now surpasses both agriculture and manufacturing in revenue. “Variety Vacationland” used to be proudly displayed on our license plates. Getting and keeping that label was because North Carolina put great store in the late 20th and early 21st century in protecting the environment; prior to that we were very cautious about not approving rules unfriendly to business.

5. North Carolina is a prosperous state and has a secure rank as a leader in the South and the nation.

North Carolina fought hard to get into the middle ranks nationally and a bit higher than that regionally.

Because of this we have to be careful to remain competitive. North Carolina is not a prosperous state. In 2000, we ranked 30th and in 2010 we ranked 35th in per capita income. When it is said that we used to proudly compare ourselves with Virginia but that now we compare ourselves to South Carolina or Mississippi – that concerns me.

6. North Carolina has a reputation for harmonious race relations.

Race has been a constant issue in North Carolina politics. The careers of more than one office holder have been derailed by demagoguery. Jesse Helms cut his teeth as a white supremacist and fought civil rights legislation his whole career. The move to suppress the black vote currently in favor in Raleigh grows out of a long tradition in a state where even in the 1960s North Carolina had more members of the KKK than any other Southern state.

It is hard not to believe that some of the anti-government attitude current in North Carolina is not related to the president’s race.

The point of all this is that I worry that those in power today are at the same time in step with the worst of North Carolina’s past and out of step with its moderate tradition.

Former Gov. James Holshouser recently passed from the scene – now there was a real North Carolina Republican.

James R. Leutze, a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina -Wilmington, is currently working on a book about North Carolina.

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