Politics & Government

Phoenix has risen in N.C.

On Jan. 29, 1901, U.S. Rep. George Henry White, the last African-American to serve in Congress for a generation, rose on the House floor to give his farewell address.

White, a Tarboro Republican, had decided not to seek re-election because the Democratic white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 had turned North Carolina into a boiling racial cauldron.

"This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress," White said. "But let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people -- rising people, full of potential force.

"The only apology I have to make for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness and the manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States."

White's speech was met with jeers by the white Democratic establishment. Speaking in Raleigh, state Rep. Aus Watts, one of the Democratic machine's chief operatives, said good riddance.

"George H. White, the insolent negro who has so long represented the proud people of North Carolina in the Congress of the United States, has retired from office forever," said Watts, according to Ben Justesen's biography "George Henry White."

"We have a white man's government in every part of the old State and from this hour no negro will again disgrace the old State in the council chambers of the nation. For these mercies, thank God."

On Tuesday, George White and Aus Watts would likely be amazed to watch Barack Obama take office as president. And they would probably be even more astonished that the voters of North Carolina helped put him there.

The rising that White mentioned took a long time. No African-American would serve in Congress after White until Oscar Stanton De Priest, a Republican from Chicago, took office in 1929. There would not be another black member of Congress from North Carolina until the election in 1992 of Democrats Eva Clayton of Warren County and Mel Watt of Charlotte.

For black North Carolinians, the last century has been a long and winding road -- a road that included disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement.

Along the way, prominent civil rights lawyers had their homes, businesses and cars firebombed. We've experienced some viciously racist political campaigns.

Despite that legacy of segregation and violence, North Carolina has long been regarded as one of the South's most moderate states.

While Alabama Gov. George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door, North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford was sending his son to an integrated school.

The first campaign I ever covered was the election of Clarence Lightner in 1973 as Raleigh's first black mayor -- at a time when only 16 percent of the city's electorate was black.

Historians often argue about North Carolina's racial legacy. For every piece of evidence that North Carolina is racially moderate, there is a counterargument that the Tar Heel State was as resistant to change as any Deep South state -- just more polite about it.

Here's my bet. If you had gathered 50 leading experts on Southern politics in 1948, and asked them which Southern state would help elect America's first black president 60 years hence, the majority would have said North Carolina.