Book Review: Julian Pleasants tackles Gov. W. Kerr Scott’s political legacy

“The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott, the Squire from Haw River” by Julian M. Pleasants.
“The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott, the Squire from Haw River” by Julian M. Pleasants.

Nobody gave W. Kerr Scott much of a chance when he announced he was running for governor of North Carolina in 1948.

And why should they? He was a plain-spoken, plain-looking, cow-milking farmer from a dirt road in Alamance County, hardly the seat of power in the state. That was to the west, where the so-called “Shelby Dynasty,” a self-anointed cabal of bankers, businessmen, conservative politicians and textile executives had handpicked Democratic governors for the past 20 years.

But Scott sensed something the ruling oligarchy had missed: World War II was over, and while it had been a bloody horror, it had been a boon to the finances of this backwater state. The construction of military bases, shipyards, defense industries and the people who worked in them had poured millions into the state treasury.

Now those who had fought the war were coming home, getting married and having babies. They wanted jobs, houses, good roads, telephones, electricity, schools, hospitals, all of which were in short supply even with a surplus in the state’s checkbook.

And perhaps most importantly, the rural people of Eastern North Carolina were tired of what they thought was second-class treatment from state government.

Scott was determined to do something about that, but first he had to get elected.

How he did it is a story well told by Julian M. Pleasants in “The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott, the Squire From Haw River.” Pleasants mined the state’s newspapers, political memoirs and thoughts of current political observers to tell the story of the leader who brought the state into the progressive political movement that rose to prominence in the post-war era.

It was a daunting task. When Scott took office in 1948, the state ranked 45th in per capita income, and average school completion was 7.9 grades. Only Charlotte had more than 100,000 people, and only 16,000 miles of the state’s 63,000 miles of roads were even paved.

The power structure dismissed Scott as an uncouth farmer from Hawfields. But in his four years in office, he saw to the paving of 14,810 miles of farm-to-market roads, built 8,000 new classrooms, 175 gymnasiums and 350 school lunchrooms. He prodded the state’s slow-moving utility companies to install 31,000 new telephones and 150,000 new electrical connections to rural homes and crossroads stores.

He named the first female superior court judge, and 15 percent of his political appointees were women. He chose the first African-American for the state board of education and worked to improve the still-segregated black school system.

But for all his success, his greatest failure is perhaps the most revealing and fascinating portion of Pleasant’s book. In 1952 he threw his full support behind the Senate candidacy of Dr. Frank Porter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina. It was the most bare-knuckled, mud-slinging, lie-telling, and overtly racist campaign to ever besmirch the name of this state, with all of the dirt coming from the supporters of Raleigh lawyer Willis Smith. Future Sen. Jesse Helms was one of Smith’s advisers, although Helms always denied the campaign had anything to do with the vicious, untrue and ugly attack on Graham.

Scott was father to Gov. Robert Scott, grandfather to Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and godfather to a generation of progressive leaders like Gov. Jim Hunt and Gov. (later Sen.) Terry Sanford. He spoke to – and for – what was once the natural coalition of liberals, working-class city folks and farmers. How he did it and the impact he had on North Carolina makes this book well worth a spot in the library of those who will groom our political landscape in the future.