Dozens of well-known North Carolina writers gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday to protest Republican policies they say are hurting public education, access to health care and voting rights.
The group included bestselling authors Clyde Edgerton, Allan Gurganus and Margaret Maron. They read a statement calling for “a new governor and a new government” so the state will have “a far, far better story for itself and its people than the one that has been rolling out of Raleigh in recent years.”
The statement called the state’s current story “a sad tale of recklessness, rapaciousness and cruelty.”
Gurganus, who grew up attending Rocky Mount public schools, is the author of the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. He says it’s important for writers to speak out about state government, particularly the policies affecting education.
“I’ve set all my books in North Carolina,” he said. “I feel personally invested as if I’m protecting my subject matter.”
Gurganus said the state is home to so many renowned writers because of its historically strong public school system.
It’s not the drinking water, it’s not the barbecue, it’s the education.
“It’s not the drinking water, it’s not the barbecue, it’s the education,” he said, noting that the state has dropped in national rankings of state spending per student. “We seem to be in a race to replace Mississippi at the bottom of the list.”
The informal group of writers is calling for the state to increase education spending, raise teacher salaries and end voucher programs for private school tuition. They’re also asking legislators to repeal income tax cuts “for the wealthy,” expand Medicaid and end gerrymandering of legislative districts.
Republicans leaders have increased education funding in recent budget cycles, and they’ve raised teacher salaries, but Democrats argue that they haven’t done enough. North Carolina improved its ranking from 47th in the country in teacher pay in 2013-14 to 42nd in 2014-15.
“Gov. McCrory is reversing the trend of neglect he inherited in our education system,” McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said Saturday, responding to the writers’ comments. “The facts are that he has raised education funding each year he’s been in office, and now funding for public schools is at an all-time high.”
Republicans argue that their income tax cuts have benefited the poor and middle class, and that Medicaid expansion would prove too costly.
The writers disagree. “We are so disgusted with what the legislature has done to our culture,” said Maron, who has written more than 20 popular mystery novels. She said state leaders talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps “but they’ve taken away the bootstraps.”
Saturday’s event was organized by novelist and musician Bland Simpson, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, and writer Jill McCorkle of Hillsborough.
“We were talking about how frustrated many of us were feeling about the way things are going,” she said. “We thought someone needs to try something.”
Simpson and McCorkle contacted writers from across the state, and most of them agreed to sign onto the statement read Saturday. “People are hungry for a voice,” she said. “As writers, we have access to a lot of avenues and stages to take our words.”
The writers aren’t the first in the arts community to weigh in on state politics. In 2013, a group of musicians called the N.C. Music Love Army recorded an album of protest songs, including one titled “North Carolina, We’re Better Than This.”
McCorkle said the writers group hopes to have “a few more gatherings before November,” when voters will decide whether to re-elect state leaders like Gov. Pat McCrory.
Notable writers who signed the statement
Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Celia Rivenbark, Tift Merritt, Zelda Lockhart, Steven Petrow, Randall Kenan, Gene Nichol, Alice Gerrard, Charles Frazier, Joe Newberry, Jaki Shelton Green, Marianne Gingher, Jill McCorkle, Bland Simpson, Margaret Maron, Clyde Edgerton, Kim Church, Katy Munger, Allen Gurganus