Call it political correctness. Call it being respectful of everyone’s point of view. Call it whatever you want. But the North Carolina Democrats have given former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson their walking papers.
When the Democrats gather for their 87th annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Raleigh on Saturday it will be without Tom and Andy.
It is now called the Unity Dinner – about as bland and inoffensive name as they could devise. The names of the two of the founders of the Democratic Party had been jettisoned because both Jefferson and Jackson were slave holders and because of Jackson’s role in the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced exile of the Cherokees from Western North Carolina.
North Carolina’s Democratic Executive Committee was hardly acting alone. State parties across the country including in South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and Connecticut have recently renamed their Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinners. Arkansas’ JJ Dinner was renamed for President Bill Clinton. New Hampshire has renamed its JJ Dinner for Clinton and John F. Kennedy.
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The name changes are reflective of changing times and shifting political coalitions, as the Democratic Party re-examines its segregationist roots.
North Carolina’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was created by the Young Democrats Club at the urging of Gov. O. Max Gardner in March 1930 to rally party support in the early days of the Great Depression. (The first one was called the Jackson Day Dinner.)
The first event drew 650 diners who paid $2.50 per plate as well as a gallery of 3,000 spectators to a Raleigh auditorium to hear national Democratic chairman Jouett Shouse, a conservative who later become an anti-New Dealer as president of the American Liberty League.
In 1930, North Carolina, like the rest of the South, was a one-party state, and the Democratic Party was a big tent that included a broad section of political views and factions. At the dinner, Josiah Bailey, a Senate candidate, drew cheers when he said North Carolina was “repenting in sackcloth” for having voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928 – the first time in 60 years the state had gone Republican in a presidential race. Powerful Sen. Furnifold Simmons skipped the dinner, which is just as well. His spokesman was booed when he tried to speak. Simmons would be defeated in the Democratic primary later that year – payback for having bolted the party and endorsed Hoover in 1928.
As segregation fell and the Democratic Party became a biracial party, the Democrats began to question their devotion to their early heroes.
They renamed their fall fundraiser in Asheville, the Vance-Aycock Dinner, started in 1960 by Gov. Terry Sanford. It became the Western Gala.
The dinner had honored Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, elected in 1900. Aycock had for most of the 20th century been a revered figure as the state’s education governor, but his role in the white supremacy campaigns to disenfranchise black voters has placed him in a less favorable light. Former Gov. Zebulon Vance was a slave holder.
The North Carolina Democratic Party does honor some of its more recent figures. It holds one fundraiser named in honor of Sanford, former Gov. Jim Hunt and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye. The Young Democrats have a dinner honoring former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt and former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt.
The Republicans have had their own name quandaries.
For decades, their county fundraising dinners were called Lincoln Day dinners, named after a founder of their party. That was fine when the North Carolina Republican Party was dominated by Western North Carolinians with their Unionist heritage.
As the state GOP grew to include a broader cross-section of voters, canny politicians sought to Southernize the events. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms would remind Lincoln Day dinner crowds not to forget the great Southern general, Robert E. Lee.
While some might see that as a racial dog whistle, it should be remembered that perhaps North Carolina’s leading 20th century liberal, Frank Porter Graham, the president of the University of North Carolina, kept small busts of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on his desk. He saw no contradiction between working for a more just society and honoring the sacrifice and gallantry of one’s forbears.
Today, many of the Lincoln Day dinners are called Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinners, including a more modern political GOP icon.
Saturday night’s Unity Dinner reflects the new Democratic Party coalition. The speaker is former President Barack Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder, who is chairman of the Democratic Redistricting Committee. The dinner, at the Talley Student Center at N.C. State University, is sold out.
Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; firstname.lastname@example.org