Lester Maddox was one of the most virulent racist politicians of his era. Maddox, governor of Georgia from 1967 to 1971, rose to prominence by blocking black people from eating at his Atlanta restaurant.
It was to Maddox that Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, compared Gov. Pat McCrory in an October 2013 column published on the commentary pages of The News & Observer.
The piece was sharply critical of McCrory for his support of election-law changes approved by the North Carolina legislature, including a requirement that voters present a photo ID. “McCrory may be a smiling back-slapper,” Nichol wrote, “but he’s also a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus,” referring also to the former segregationist governors of Alabama and Arkansas.
The column galled many Republicans. Nichol, an outspoken critic of the state’s GOP leadership, might already have been on their hit list. His column about McCrory seemed to strengthen their resolve, as we reported in our coverage. The UNC Board of Governors voted last month to eliminate the poverty center, along with two others.
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Board members said politics were not involved. But it’s hard to believe Nichol’s barbed criticism wasn’t a factor. That belief was reinforced by a letter to The N&O by Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, who supported the board and wrote, “Nichol is nothing more than a strident left-winger with no fresh ideas.”
Eric Locher, a Charlotte Realtor, has known McCrory for nearly 40 years. Of Nichol’s column, Locher said, “It’s not the public Pat McCrory I know, and it’s not the private Pat McCrory I know.”
Locher said McCrory, starting in his 20s, for years mentored young African-American males through Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“He was very much a part of their lives,” Locher told me.
“He had been involved in sports and being a referee. That was fulfilling to a certain point but without his own kids, he really wanted to be a part of some lives and make a difference. He quietly and consistently went about it.”
As mayor, McCrory started a mentoring program. He was a Republican mayor in a Democratic city and gained a reputation for being able to work across party lines, including with black Democrats. “He has been a convenor of people,” Locher said.
Not the KKK
Nichol agrees that the column galvanized Republicans, who were already unhappy with his N&O commentaries. But Nichol said he didn’t regret the column, including the comparison to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus. “I said he was a successor to them,” he said this week. “I do think it’s fair. I think it’s accurate. I’m not saying he’s exactly the same.”
He continued: “I don’t know his personal interactions. I think those are important matters but that’s not the issue. The issue is what he’s doing and allowing to be done as governor of this state. I’m not saying he’s a cruel human being or he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m saying he has a record that is devastating to poor people and people of color.”
But Nichol’s column went beyond McCrory’s record. Nichol went personal on McCrory – and then Republicans went personal on Nichol. By going after McCrory in a personal way, Nichol made it easy for his opponents to focus on Nichol and ignore his broader, more significant message.
Professors ought to be able to write in The N&O (or anywhere else) without fear of retribution from politicians or their appointees. But they should inform us through research and lead us though debate at a high level that is focused on ideas and aspirations. In that regard, Nichol came up short.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org