From the Editor

Drescher: Former NC governor got shout-out on historic day

jdrescher@newsobserver.comSeptember 6, 2013 

As the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, few North Carolinians were aware of a footnote in history from that August day in 1963. As governors across the South were fighting to preserve segregation, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins gave a shout-out to North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford.

In his March on Washington speech, Wilkins called on lawmakers “to be as brave as our sit-ins and our marchers, to be as daring as James Meredith, to be as unafraid as the nine children of Little Rock. And to be as forthright as the governor of North Carolina.”

Sanford was different from the other Southern governors. He had defeated I. Beverly Lake, a self-described “champion of segregation,” in 1960. In governor’s races in the South from 1957 to 1973, only twice did racial moderates defeat strong segregationists. Sanford was first.

His issue: Better schools

In his inauguration speech, Sanford said, “No group of our citizens can be denied the right to participate in the opportunities of first-class citizenship.”

But civil rights wasn’t Sanford’s campaign issue; improving schools was. He persuaded the 1961 legislature to put the sales tax on food and use the proceeds to make public schools better. His program added 2,800 teachers, raised teacher pay 22 percent, improved teacher training, doubled library money to $1 per student and increased money for supplies by 33 percent.

Sanford had shied away from race issues in his 1960 campaign and wasn’t sure if he wanted to address those issues in 1963.

But he was troubled by his visits to schools. When he talked at black public schools about the promise of America, he knew his words did not ring true. So Sanford did what he typically did when he was considering action – he gathered a diverse group to advise him.

Sanford, born in 1917, was ahead of his time in involving women and minorities. He gathered 25 people, including six who were black, at the governor’s mansion to read them a draft of a speech he was considering. He gave the speech a few weeks later, and became the first southern governor to call for employment without regard to race or creed.

The backlash was immediate. He’d spent political capital in getting his schools program. His actions on race further eroded his support. North Carolina governors then were limited to one term. When the 1964 governor’s race became a referendum on his policies, his candidate lost badly.

But eventually North Carolina followed a path Sanford blazed. When he died in 1998, North Carolina was a different state than when he was elected in 1960. Once near the bottom in measures such as per capita income and adult illiteracy, the state had made great strides.

A divided state

North Carolina is divided politically and has been for 100 years – not necessarily by party but always by ideology. The two sides often are called “liberal” and “conservative.” Paul Luebke, in his book “Tar Heel Politics,” called them “modernizers” and “traditionalists.”

Sanford had personal qualities that served him well and would serve public figures in today’s acrimonious climate. He was inclusive and a good listener. He didn’t take politics personally. Even his political opponents liked him.

He also had courage. David Gergen, a North Carolina native who has advised several presidents, said Sanford believed he could lead the state away from the paralysis of prejudice and into the national mainstream. Sanford, Gergen said, showed how a single, fearless leader can release the best in his people.

This column is adapted from Drescher’s 2000 book about Terry Sanford.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com.

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