Even as a youngster in a public elementary school in North Carolina during the late 1950s and ’60s, I had a sense that North Carolina was just better. Yes, we were more enlightened than our Deep South neighbors in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and certainly Alabama and Mississippi, two states where governors stood in schoolhouse doors or sheriffs turned hoses on citizens demonstrating for civil rights.
That didn’t happen in our North Carolina, we told ourselves then and later. We were enlightened, compassionate, tolerant. Our governor at the dawn of the 1960s was Terry Sanford, a lawyer from Fayetteville, who endorsed John F. Kennedy for president and didn’t indulge in race-baiting or speak in the redneck lingo of some neighboring chief executives. He’d be followed, for the next 40-plus years, by leaders who didn’t care for demagoguery, including the dominant progressive governor of the 20th century, Jim Hunt, and two moderate Republicans, Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, who were frustrated by Democratic legislatures but were admirable representatives of a proud state.
During the early years of desegregation, North Carolina did not succumb to the demands of those on the right wing to close the public schools. That seems like a preposterous notion now but could have happened then with only a couple of twists of fate.
But now, the disgrace of House Bill 2, a law ginned up by Republican leaders in the General Assembly to respond to a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, has taken us down more than a peg. Governors in Georgia and South Carolina have rejected ideologically driven laws like this curbing rights of gay and transgender people. They’re ready to capture business that North Carolina loses.
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And our law, of course, included a limit on localities raising their minimum wages or passing their own anti-discrimination laws.
How bad is it? Even Donald Trump doesn’t like it. Conventions and other business, including jobs, are being lost, and the federal government is threatening North Carolina with the loss of millions of dollars, maybe billions, because of civil rights problems with HB2.
I recalled, in the middle of it, a conversation I had as a teenager with a wise older political reporter. “Don’t kid yourself,” he said. “North Carolina hasn’t gone the way of the other states in the South thanks in part to good luck. We’ve had a series of moderate governors, and Frank Porter Graham (of UNC) trained a generation of leaders (William Friday being the most prominent) out of Chapel Hill. Absent those factors, we might be right there with Mississippi and Alabama.”
And the governors mostly were not liberals but certainly they were people not inclined to bend and bow with the populist winds. Had that been the case, segregation would have been perpetuated, the public schools would have been starved and the idea of public investment in helping less fortunate citizens would never have gotten any attention. Sanford’s push for what is now a community college system would have died on the vine had he not stood strong.
But now HB2 raises justifiable doubts about it all. It appears North Carolina’s self-image as superior to other Southern states may have been an illusion all along. “To be rather than to seem” has been our proud motto. But are we living up to it?
The state stands ready to lose those billions because of those civil rights issues, and the legislative leaders who brought us HB2 act as if they’re ready to respond with a big “so what?” Public schools are under threat, and teacher pay is lagging. Medicaid hasn’t expanded for hundreds of thousands of good people just because Republicans don’t like President Obama.
And where is that moderate governor in the mold of those who stood up for progress, for enlightenment, for helping the less fortunate? Pat McCrory signed HB2 — quickly.
Here’s the irony: McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, ran as a moderate who would work with both parties and engineer a “Carolina Comeback” that would bring many thousands of new jobs and new industries to North Carolina — because the state had such a great image on which to trade.
Wow. Thanks to the GOP leaders on Jones Street, and yes, to McCrory, too, the image is tarnished and the jobs are going away because of a dumb law driven by ideology and arrogance. The “comeback” may be over, and the retreat has begun.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at email@example.com