The phrase “not from around here” usually betrays at least some degree of xenophobia. I am not from around here, but during my 42-year residency in North Carolina I have never experienced that suspicion of outsiders directed at me. And I hope that this does not register as xenophobic.
But recently some of my friends and I were commenting on the fact that a not inconsiderable number of people in high places here are not from around here. Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate, was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. John Fennebresque, former UNC Board of Governors chairman, is from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and a graduate of Choate, a Connecticut prep school. Gov. Pat McCrory was born in Columbus, Ohio. Bob Rucho, former chairman of the N.C. Senate Redistricting Committee and former co-chairman of the Finance Committee, is from Worcester, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Northeastern University. Thom Tillis, recently elected to the U.S. Senate, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended Chattanooga Community College. He is reported to have moved about 20 times. My friend, the writer Fred Hobson, calls these men “neo-carpetbaggers.”
My friends and I further observed that the leaders we hold in highest esteem – those who worked to make North Carolina a beacon of progressive politics and educational excellence – were natives of our state: Terry Sanford was from Laurinburg, Frank Porter Graham from Fayetteville and William Aycock from Lucama. Sanford was our 65th governor, a U.S. senator and president of Duke University. As governor he almost doubled expenditures on public schools. He was a critical agent in the expansion of Research Triangle Park. Graham was a U.S. senator and the first president of the Consolidated University of North Carolina system. President Truman appointed him to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Aycock was chancellor of UNC-CH, 1957-64. His strong opposition to the Speaker Ban Law of 1963 earned him the wrath of powerful lawmakers.
It is worth noting that these men served our country in both WWI and WWII. Aycock was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit following the Battle of the Bulge. Graham interrupted his teaching profession at UNC-CH to enlist in the Marine Corps for service in 1917. Sanford was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in WWII. After these wars, they came home, laid down their guns and devoted themselves to public service.
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Fennebresque was recently arrested at the Charlotte airport for having a gun in his briefcase. I don’t think he has served our country in the military, but he may feel the need to protect it as a private citizen. He certainly felt the need to protect the UNC system when, as chairman of the Board of Governors, he explained the reasons for replacing UNC President Tom Ross, as fine a leader as you will ever find: “We want a change agent, but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change.”
Berger so far is staunch in his defense of House Bill 2, despite the economic toll it is taking on our state and the universal shame of its discriminatory nature. He and his fellow signatories of the bill, at a cost of $42,000 to you and me, flagged down the Midnight Special for a special session of the legislature and railroaded HB2 to McCrory, who immediately signed it so that our daughters and sons are not in peril in public restrooms. Regarding restrooms, Tillis said that restaurants are over-regulated and should not be required to tell employees to wash their hands after using the toilet. What is it about restrooms that occupies the thoughts of our lawmakers when we are facing critical challenges in our educational system, our economy, our climate, our national security?
As for our national security, Rucho sees a serious threat in Washington. In a 2013 tweet, he said, “Justice Robert’s pen & Obamacare has [sic] done more damage to the USA then [sic] the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined.” Can you imagine Terry Sanford or Frank Porter Graham or William Aycock even thinking something so feral as that, much less broadcasting it?
Don’t get me wrong. We are all Americans, regardless of our birth state. I was born and raised in Mississippi, now paired with North Carolina in news near and far regarding discriminatory legislation. Mine was not an easy passage, trying to free myself from a culture of violence, racism and intolerance of those outside the accepted norm. Along the way, I looked to North Carolina as the hope of the South. I did not know it, but I realize now that those leaders had a deep and abiding sense of place, they were attuned to the state’s cultural nuances, they were adroit at working both sides of the aisle, they had a vision of progress and common cause.
What I see now leads me to conclude that among those who are “not from around here” there is either an unawareness of or an outright insensitivity to the legacy of vision and compassion that as residents of North Carolina we need to honor, whether we are from around here or not.
James Seay’s essays and poems have appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Oxford American and most recently Harper’s. He lives in Chapel Hill.