Point of View

History shows human rights will win out against reactionary NC politics

May 19, 2014 


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This year’s short session of the N.C. General Assembly may well add new streams to the legislative flood that has recently swept away much of our state’s reputation for political moderation.

A political thunderstorm still hovers over the entire governmental landscape as state legislators act upon a reactionary belief that historical changes can be rolled back and that a mythical (pre-1960s) golden age can be restored. The history of reactionary campaigns, however, shows that such reactions always fail to achieve their core objectives and that historical changes never return us to the past.

Reactionary movements emerged in America shortly after the authors of the Declaration of Independence affirmed “that all Men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” This declaration became the starting point for constant struggles between those who wanted to expand the real-world usage of “inalienable” human rights and those who reacted against this expansion by defending slavery and earlier social hierarchies.

When the national efforts to abolish slavery gathered momentum and reflected new demographic patterns in Northern states, radical Southern reactionaries sought to protect slavery and their hierarchical social order by seceding from the Union.

The secessionists were defeated, and slavery was abolished, but a new reaction gained political power at the end of the 19th century when traditional social elites recaptured Southern state governments. New state laws drastically restricted the voting rights of black citizens and denied formerly enslaved persons their legal rights to full equality, and older laws continued to deny equal rights for women and other disenfranchised groups.

After long struggles, women gained the right to vote in the 1920s, and Southern African-Americans mostly acquired their long-denied political rights in the 1960s. New reform movements also asserted that people could not actually use their equal political and legal rights unless they had other rights to public education, equal opportunities for employment, basic health care and unemployment benefits. The struggle for human rights therefore took on new social dimensions in an evolving Democratic Party, and the resistance to expanding such rights carried the enduring reaction into the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.

Like all such reactions, the current movement expresses strong fears that our state is running out of time to restore what has been lost, and it is supported by wealthy groups that want to protect specific economic interests.

Its political success, however, depends on well-focused electoral tactics that create gerrymandered legislative districts, reduce access to voting and also spread fearful warnings about immigrants, Muslims, same-sex marriage, public education, health care reform, environmental regulations, “false” scientific studies of climate change, gun control, Medicaid recipients and other perceived threats to North Carolinians.

But history never stands still. Even the current legislative leaders may suspect that in the 22nd century North Carolina will be a diverse, multicultural state where same-sex marriage will be legal, women will have access to abortion, capital punishment will have been abolished, fossil fuels will no longer be the main source of energy, health care will be a basic human right, advanced voting methods will allow all citizens to participate conveniently in elections and progressive taxation will sustain the state’s government and public schools.

Although we cannot know what movements for social reform will emerge in North Carolina over the coming century, we can be certain that new movements will develop and that influential groups will react by trying to stop or overturn the social changes of that era.

Meanwhile, the current radical reaction will ultimately fail to achieve its main goals. Many people, schools and environmental sites will be harmed by recently enacted policies, but the long-term historical progress of human rights and the public institutions that support them cannot be stopped.

Lloyd Kramer is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina

at Chapel Hill.

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