Fragile Democracy The Struggle Over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina

James Leloudis, Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Robert Korstad, Professor Emeritus of History and Public Policy, Duke University

Over the last decade, North Carolina has been a battleground in the national debate over the right to vote, or, more precisely, over the question of who gets to exercise that right and under what circumstances. As scholars and as participants in that debate, we share another observer's sense "that the politics of today is continuous with the past that made it, marked by struggles that have never really ended, only ebbed, shifted, and returned."

That is why we have looked to history to understand today's battle over the ballot box. We wrote Fragile Democracy to share our discoveries. What has happened in North Carolina matters for the nation as a whole. Indeed, the state's history can help us comprehend why, a century and a half after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, we remain a people divided over the right to vote.

This digital exhibit is mobile friendly, but it is best viewed on the larger screen of a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer.

Since the end of the Civil War, struggles over race and voting rights in North Carolina have played out through cycles of emancipatory politics and conservative retrenchment.

When race has been used as an instrument of exclusion from political life, the result has been a society in which vast numbers of citizens are denied the elements of meaningful freedom: a living wage and access to quality education, health care, and housing.

On March 5, 1869, North Carolina became the third state, and the first in the South, to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment. That affirmation of equal citizenship was the work of a biracial majority in the state legislature, elected in 1868 under the banner of the state's new Republican Party.

Months earlier, voters had approved a new state constitution that replaced a government once dominated by slaveholders with a democracy "instituted solely for the good of the whole."

In its preamble, the 1868 constitution affirmed working people's right "to the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor." This was an elemental concern for Blacks whose toil had enriched the whites who enslaved them.

The constitution also guaranteed "free" elections, granted all adult men the right to vote, placed local government in the hands of elected officials rather than appointed magistrates, mandated the establishment of a system of public schools, and levied a tax to fund "beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and orphan."

This revolutionary charter was crafted largely by Black leaders – many of them newly emancipated – who expressed an inclusive vision for American democracy. In 1870, twenty of those men traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the Colored National Labor Convention.

North Carolina delegate James H. Harris presided over the gathering. He led the work of drafting a manifesto for a future built on interracial cooperation, labor solidarity, and equal rights for women. The document called for unions organized "without regard to color"; extended a "welcome hand to the free immigration of labor of all nationalities"; and implored the states to fund "free school system[s] that know no distinction on account of race, color, sex, creed, or previous condition."

These expansive notions of democracy came under immediate assault by self-styled Conservatives who decried "negro domination," hid beneath Klansmen's hoods, and waged a campaign of terror and political assassination against Black citizens and their white allies.

In the 1870 election, Conservatives triumphed over what they dismissed as the "unwise doctrine of universal equality." They impeached Governor William Holden and removed him from office on charges that he had used the state militia illegally to suppress Klan violence. Soon afterward, Conservatives passed laws that granted Klansmen amnesty for criminal acts, including murder, committed in the name of white supremacy.

During the 1870s and 80s, North Carolina politics settled into an uneasy stalemate. As this 1874 photograph of members of the state house of representatives attests, Blacks continued to win elective office and white Conservatives feared new alliances across the color line.

That fear turned to reality in the mid-1890s, when hardships caused by a sharp downturn in the national economy motivated a sizable minority of white farmers and laborers to join a third-party Populist movement and make common cause Black and white Republicans.

Rev. Richmond H. W. Leak (left) and Marion Butler (right)

Rev. Richmond H. W. Leak, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, urged Blacks to join what he and others called a Fusion alliance with Populists, so long as whites respected "the honor and manhood of the colored race." Populist leader Marion Butler never fully accepted Blacks as equals, but because they could vote and were politically mobilized, he did see them as allies. For that reason, he encouraged fellow Populists to vote their economic interests, "join with others who agree with us, and win a great victory." In 1894, the Fusion coalition won a majority of seats in the state legislature, and in 1896, captured the governor's office as well.

Similar alliances formed in other southern states, but in no other did they gain control of both the legislative and executive branches of government. If biracial politics had a chance of success in the region, the best chance was in North Carolina.

Fusion legislators revised state election law and established what historians have described as the late nineteenth-century South's "most democratic" political system. The revised law mandated campaign finance reporting, required that employers give workers time off to vote, protected voters from frivolous and obstructive challenges to their eligibility, and accommodated illiterate voters – 60 percent of Blacks and 23 percent of whites – by allowing political parties to print ballots on colored paper and mark them with insignia.

1896 Republican ballot, produced under the provisions of the Fusion election law and clearly marked with identifying images
Fusion lawmakers also equalized per capita spending for Black and white schools, shifted the weight of taxation from individuals to corporations, and made generous appropriations to state charitable and correctional institutions.

in 1898, Conservatives – who now called themselves Democrats – answered these reforms with a ruthless campaign to restore white rule. The Raleigh News and Observer, the state's most influential Democratic paper, whipped up race hatred with front-page cartoons that vilified Black men. This cartoon depicted them as the demonic spawn of Fusion politics.

Democratic leaders also encouraged party loyalists to organize Klan-like squads of vigilantes called Red Shirts to intimidate Fusion voters at the polls. The men were preparing for Election Day in Laurinburg.

The worst violence erupted in Wilmington, where armed whites marauded through Black neighborhoods, killed as many as thirty Black citizens in the streets, and, in America's only municipal coup, forced the city's Fusion government from office. A local photographer produced this souvenir postcard to mark the occasion.

Destruction of Love and Charity Hall, which housed the office and printshop of Wilmington's Black newspaper, the Daily Record

On Election Day, Democrats took back control of the legislature. In festivities across the state, they celebrated a "glorious victory" for white supremacy.

White supremacy souvenirs, 1898

In the 1899 legislative session, the new Democratic majority passed North Carolina's first Jim Crow law. They also reversed Fusion election law reforms, purged the voter rolls, and required that all voters register anew. Then, in 1900 – as their gubernatorial candidate, Charles B. Aycock, threatened – Democrats used force and fraud to win popular approval of an amendment to the state constitution that required a literacy test for voter registration. In practice, the amendment gave election officials wide discretion in deciding who to test and what constituted literacy, effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of Black men and a considerable number of whites as well.

A Populist newspaper cartoon denounced the tactics that Democrats used to win the 1900 election and amend the state constitution. The name "Simmons" on the ballot box refers to Furnifold M. Simmons, chairman of the Democratic Party, who led the campaign for white supremacy.
After the 1900 election, North Carolina Congressman George H. White offered a benediction for democracy and equal citizenship on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. White was the last Black politician to serve in Congress until 1929, and the last from North Carolina until 1993.
"This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix–like he will rise up someday 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." – George H. White, 1901
The Democrats' victory in 1900 established a new order defined by one-party government, racial segregation, cheap labor, and grinding poverty. This regime, based on law and custom, became known as Jim Crow, a name taken from blackface characters in 19th-century minstrel shows.

Most Americans – certainly most white Americans – think of Jim Crow simply as an expression of prejudice and discrimination. But it was much more than that: Jim Crow was a system of power and plunder that concentrated wealth in the hands of a small white minority and mobilized racial animosity in defense of that accumulation. Segregation trapped most blacks on the land as a semi-bound workforce and held their earnings to near-subsistence levels, dragged down white wages by devaluing labor in general, and advanced the interests of landlords and employers by threatening dissenting whites with the loss of racial privilege. This regime immiserated Black people and vast numbers of whites as well.

Over the next century, Black North Carolinians fought persistently to hold America accountable to its democratic ideals. They did so not only to advance their own interests but also to promote the general welfare and to make government responsive to the needs of all its people.

World War I put the first chinks in Jim Crow's armor. When President Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy, Black soldiers and the women they left behind took him at his word.
At the War's End, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America."

Such convictions gave Black North Carolinians the courage to step back into electoral politics. In 1919, Raleigh physician Manassa T. Pope (below) joined two other Black candidates to run for seats on the city council. "We knew we wouldn't win," they confessed, "we just wanted to wake up our people politically."

Dr. Manassa T. Pope

That same year, educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown (below) joined the campaign for women's right to vote. Although some white suffragists argued that the same devices that kept most Black men from voting could also be used against Black women, the prospect of Black women casting ballots so unsettled Democratic lawmakers that they voted against ratification. That refusal stuck until 1971, when the North Carolina state legislature finally ratified the 19th Amendment.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia

A new era in the struggle for the ballot began when Black North Carolinians joined the Great Migration out of the South during the 1920s. They found job opportunities in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, and in the absence of literacy tests, they also gained access to the ballot box. During the 1930s, these migrants led a broader Black exodus out of the party of Lincoln in support of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Back home in North Carolina, Louis E. Austin, editor of Durham's Carolina Times, and Black leaders in more than a dozen other towns and cities orchestrated a statewide voter registration drive, which despite the literacy test, added 40,000 Black voters to the rolls.

Austin and local captains of the North Carolina Committee on Negro Affairs urged those new voters to register as Democrats. By doing so, they challenged Jim Crow from within "the party that [had] the power" – a party that, within the South, still stood defiantly for white supremacy.

Josiah W. Bailey, North Carolina's senior U.S. Senator, fumed over that brashness. He warned President Roosevelt that concessions to Blacks would cause southern Democrats to bolt to "a new white man's party." Bailey foretold the realignment that transformed North Carolina politics three decades later.

America's entry into World War II in 1941, posed fresh challenges to Jim Crow's regime. Millions more Blacks left the South for jobs in northern defense industries, and the ranks of the NAACP swelled from 50,000 to 450,000 members. Black activists rallied for a double victory, against fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home. The federal government, concerned that racial conflict not impede the war effort, acted to limit employment discrimination and white violence.

These developments emboldened the more than 8,000 black men and women who labored in the R. J. Reynolds tobacco factories in Winston-Salem. When they and a small group of sympathetic white workers sought to organize a local of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union (FTA), federal mediators defended their right to organize and compelled Reynolds to improve working conditions and pay higher wages.

In 1947, FTA members backed the election of Kenneth R. Williams to the Winston-Salem board of alderman. He was the first Black candidate to win a municipal election since the Wilmington coup. With a nod to history, one worker exclaimed, "It was just like being reconstructed."

Those workers in Winston-Salem and 10,000 members of a sister local in eastern North Carolina's tobacco warehouses and stemmeries were in the vanguard of a statewide campaign for more inclusive politics. They provided local support for the Progressive Party, formed by break-away Democrats to support the 1948 presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace. In North Carolina, the party nominated a slate of candidates that represented an extraordinary commitment to equal citizenship. Of the nineteen candidates on the state ticket, seven were Black and five were white women, including journalist Mary Watkins Price, the first woman to run for governor in the state.

Henry Wallace (right) had served as vice president, secretary of agriculture, and secretary of commerce in Franklin Roosevelt's administration. He had a reputation as a full-throated critic of Jim Crow.
"The dangerous disease of race hate, which bears so heavily upon Negro citizens . . . at the same time drags the masses of southern white citizens into the quagmire of poverty and ignorance and political servitude. . . . Jim Crow divides white and Negro for the profit of the few. It is a very profitable system indeed." – Henry Wallace, 1948

The price exacted by Jim Crow was measured not just in dollars, but also in lives. Wallace made that point with a "single grim fact": "A Negro child born this day has a life expectancy ten years less than that of a white child born a few miles away."

Henry Wallace campaign poster, 1948
"These ten years are what we are fighting for," Wallace declared. "I say that those who stand in the way of the health, education, housing, and social security programs which would erase that gap commit murder. I say that those who perpetuate Jim Crow are criminals. I pledge you that I shall fight them with everything I have."

The Progressive Party's defeat was a foregone conclusion. Henry Wallace’s position on race and calls for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union alienated too many voters. But the electorate was restless, and gave the keys to the governor's mansion to W. Kerr Scott, a racially moderate New Dealer who, like the Populists of the 1890s, appealed to white farmers and factory workers by promising to raise wages, invest in farm-to-market roads, and bring telephone and electric service to rural communities.

One of Scott's boldest moves was to appoint University of North Carolina president Frank Porter Graham to fill the seat of U.S. Senator J. Melville Broughton, who died in office in 1949.

In the next election, Graham ran for a term of his own. In the Democratic primary, his chief rival was Raleigh attorney Willis Smith. The contest was so close that a run-off was required to choose a winner. Graham, who had been close to President Roosevelt, ran as a New Dealer who promised to improve the lives of North Carolina's working people, black and white. Smith answered by characterizing him as a radical proponent of racial equality.

Willis Smith campaign flier, 1950

On election Day, a majority of voters rallied to the defense of white supremacy and rejected Frank Graham's vision for a just and equitable society. Willis Smith won the run-off election and went on to claim a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Smith's staff included a young journalist named Jesse A. Helms Jr., who had helped shape his campaign's appeals to white racism. Helms returned to Washington twenty-two years later as a Republican senator.

In the aftermath of the 1950 election, Frank Graham's supporters were distraught. But newspaper editor Louis Austin found cause for hope. He reminded his readers that more than 260,000 voters – the vast majoirty of them white – had cast their ballots for Graham, and in doing so had refused to bow to "race hatred." Appeals to justice and decency had loosened Jim Crow's grasp and created room for civil rights activists to maneuver.

Leaders and ordinary folk in Black communities across North Carolina took up that challenge. In 1951, a "rush" of thirteen candidates stood for election in eleven cities, from Rocky Mount in the east to Winston-Salem in the west. Three of them won seats on their municipal councils. Two year later, twenty-four black candidates ran in nineteen cities, and six bested their white opponents.

One of the six was Wilson dentist George K. Butterfield Sr. (second from the left), shown here taking his oath of office.

These victories, though limited, so disturbed white political leaders that they devised new ways to make it difficult for Blacks to compete. The candidates who won elections in 1951 and 1953 did so in localities with district or ward systems of representation. In a society in which strict residential segregation was the norm, such systems offered Blacks opportunities to elect officials who represented their interests. Beginning in the mid 1950s, state lawmakers closed that door by reorganizing local government in cities and in eastern counties with sizable Black populations. They replaced wards with at-large representation, so that a full slate of aldermen or commissioners would be elected in a single, multimember contest. Under that arrangement, a Black candidate would face not one but many white opponents and would have no chance of winning without the support of a significant portion of the white majority.

Lawmakers also banned single-shot voting, or, as it was sometimes called, "bullet voting." That was the practice of marking a ballot for only one candidate in multicandidate contests in which the top vote getters won election to a set number of seats. In simple mathematical terms, single-shot voting offered Blacks – always a minority – their best chance at electing representatives from their own communities. The new prohibition undercut that prospect by requiring that election officials discard single-shot ballots.

Between 1955 and 1961, the legislature outlawed single-shot voting in a mix of countywide and municipal elections in twenty-three eastern counties, all of which had large Black populations. The prohibition also applied to three counties in the western half of the state that were Republican strongholds.

The guardians of white rule were shrewd adversaries, but Black citizens gave no ground in exposing their callous disregard for democracy. That was nowhere more clear than in the career of attorney James R. Walker Jr. (below).

James R. Walker Jr.

Walker, a native of Hertford County, was one of five Black students admitted by federal court order to the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1951. Having already completed two years of legal study at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), he took his UNC degree in 1952. Three years later, civic leaders in Halifax County persuaded him to return to eastern North Carolina and join their struggle for political rights. Walker made the move and soon began filing lawsuits.

One case in particular revealed how guileful white officials could be in defending Jim Crow. In Bazemore v. Bertie County Board of Elections (1961), the State Supreme Court ruled that registrars had broad authority to exercise personal discretion in deciding who would be required to pass the literacy test before registering to vote.

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Clifton L. Moore declared that “it would be unrealistic to say that the test must be administered to all applicants.” If a registrar believed that an individual could read and write, “no test [was] required.” In practice, few registrars made such an assumption about Blacks.

The state supreme court heard the Bazemore case amid a storm of civil rights protests. Sit-ins began in Greensboro on February 1, 1960, and spread quickly across North Carolina and the South. Two months later, young activists, Black and white, gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That choice of location honored Black Americans' long struggle for freedom. Shaw, established by Baptist missionaries in 1865, is the oldest Black institution of higher education in the South.

Joseph A. McNeil, Franklin McCain, William Smith, and Clarence Henderson – students at the historically Black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University) – demanding service at the Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, February 1960

Veteran civil rights activist Ella Baker helped to organize and fund SNCC's founding conference. Baker grew up in Littleton and graduated from Shaw in 1927. She was a mentor to SNCC volunteers, like the students below, who worked with local people to build a mass movement for equal citizenship and voting rights.

Ella Baker and SNCC volunteers in Mississippi, 1964

The Greensboro sit-ins were also the backdrop for one of the most divisive gubernatorial elections in North Carolina's history.

The chief contenders for the Democratic Party nomination, Terry Sanford (right) and I. Beverly Lake Sr. (left), had sharply different ideas about the future.

Lake, a respected professor of law at Wake Forest College and a staunch segregationist, had served as North Carolina's assistant attorney general. In that role, he appeared before the U.S. Supreme during hearings on implementation of its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board. Lake argued that local judges and government officials should have "wide discretion" in deciding the pace of school desegregation. The court adopted that view in 1955, when it ordered in decidedly vague language that Jim Crow education should be dismantled with "all deliberate speed."

Sanford, who had served as a paratrooper in World War II, represented a new generation who had come out of that conflict with an eagerness to break with the past and build better lives for themselves and their children. When Lake tried to bait him on race issues, Sanford answered by calling for a "New Day," built on better jobs, better education, and better health for everyone. That appeal worked. Sanford won the Democratic nomination and then easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election.

Sanford took office with little to say about the civil rights struggle that was roiling around him, but he sought the counsel of Black advisors like Durham banker John H. Wheeler, who were quick to educate him.
Wheeler was forthright. "North Carolina," he insisted, "cannot enjoy the bright sunshine of a New Day in industry, agriculture, education, and democratic living unless it frees each one of its citizens to develop to the maximum of his capabilities."

Sanford took that advice to heart. In early 1963, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he delivered a remarkable speech before a gathering of the North Carolina Press Association. Sanford called for an end to Jim Crow. It was the right thing to do, he said, and also a practical necessity. Future growth and prosperity required that North Carolina fulfill the promise of freedom that was made at the end of slavery and then gutted by the white supremacy campaign of 1898-1900.

As he spoke, Sanford must have had another southern governor on his mind. Four days earlier, George Wallace had declared in his inaugural address on the steps of the Alabama state capitol, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"

To defeat Jim Crow, Terry Sanford declared war on poverty. Racial segregation and the low-wage economy it sustained inflicted hardship and suffering on millions of North Carolinians. In 1960, 37 percent of the state's residents – twice the national average – lived below the poverty line, and in eastern counties Black impoverishment was so deep and pervasive that outsiders referred to the region as North Carolina's "little Mississippi."

In 1963, Sanford launched the North Carolina Fund, a nonprofit agency that developed community-based strategies for fighting poverty. The Fund received financing from private foundations and the federal government. Its Durham headquarters is pictured here.
Through its North Carolina Volunteers program, the Fund recruited college students – men and women, Black and white – to work in antipoverty projects statewide. The volunteers tutored children and taught adults to read, repaired homes, and helped people in poverty access social welfare services. In rural areas, they also took on public health work, replacing wells and outhouses with neighborhood water systems (bottom left), septic tanks, and indoor plumbing.

The next year, President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to Rocky Mount to see the Fund in action. Many of its programs provided inspiration for his own Great Society initiatives. That included the Fund's interracial student corps (above), which was the model for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, known today as AmeriCorps).

Here, President Johnson (center) and Governor Sanford are visiting the Marlows (seated left) and their children – a sharecropping family who earned $1,500 a year, well below the federal poverty line.

The Fund began its work with top-down programs designed to rescue people from what well-meaning reformers described as a debilitating "culture of poverty." But as Fund staff immersed themselves in communities across the state, they realized that what their impoverished neighbors really needed was a political voice and the power to break the stranglehold of North Carolina's "poverty-segregation complex."

By 1965, the Fund had made a dramatic course correction. It moved away from uplifting people in poverty to organizing them politically, registering them to vote, and mobilizing them to demand fair treatment from government officials, landlords, and employers.

The Fund's objective was to create nothing less than an army of the "organized and articulate poor." The effectiveness of that effort was readily apparent in the work of the People's Program on Poverty, which organized more than 3,000 Black sharecroppers and domestic workers in eastern North Carolina. Under the leadership of Rev. James A. Felton (below), a Marine veteran, the program sponsored a poor people's conference; helped Black families apply for low-interest, federally-backed home mortgages; and secured federal funds to build neighborhood water systems that replaced shallow, often polluted wells.

Rev. James A. Felton
Flier for a 1966 conference convened in eastern North Carolina by the People's Program on Poverty

In Durham, the North Carolina Fund pulled together a confederation of neighborhood councils called United Organizations for Community Improvement (UOCI). The group supported rent strikes against Durham's most notorious landlords and created a tenants' association to represent residents of public housing. It also demanded better wages for support staff in the city's public schools, and pressed officials to pave streets and pick up trash in neglected low-income neighborhoods.

A street in one of Durham's Black neighborhoods, 1964

Through these efforts, members of UOCI came to understand that making change required participation in party politics. They began attending Democratic Party precinct meetings, and in some instances did so in large enough numbers to displace white power brokers. In 1968, the organized poor elected Ann Atwater – a forceful, outspoken leader of the UOCI councils – as vice chair of the Durham County Democratic Party.

Ann Atwater canvassing for votes

Across the South, civil rights other activists were also working toward political empowerment. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent hundreds of volunteers to Mississippi to staff its Freedom Summer voter registration campaign and to teach in Freedom Schools for Black children. Whites answered that work with frightful violence. Klansmen, in coordination with local law enforcement, ambushed and murdered three civil rights workers in Neshoba County: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Nine months later, state troopers in Alabama teargassed and mercilessly beat protesters who were marching from Selma to Montgomery to honor activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been murdered by police, and to demand the right to vote.

In the aftermath of these events, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a televised address to Congress in which he called white Americans to task for their century-long refusal to make good on the promise of equal citizenship. "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote," he declared.

"TheRe Is No constitutional issue here," Johnson avowed. "The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue here. It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States' rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights."

Congress subsequently passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation – together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations – destroyed the legal foundation of Jim Crow's regime.

Filling out a voter registration form

The struggle, however, was far from complete. In many ways, the situation in North Carolina resembled the post-Civil War years. The federal government had passed laws protecting civil rights, but like their brethren a century before, conservatives in the 1960s had no intention of surrendering their power and privilege. In the state legislature, they fought a determined battle to limit additional Black gains and to assure white constituents that the Democratic Party would never become the "Negro party."

In 1966 and 1967, Democratic lawmakers erected a virtual barricade around the state legislature. They did so by increasing the number of multimember legislative districts by half. The change affected representation in nearly all of the counties in eastern North Carolina that had large Black populations.

This was the same strategy for disadvantaging Black candidates and voters that had been in place since the 1950s in county and municipal governments.

To compound the effect, lawmakers added numbered seat plans to many eastern districts. Under this scheme, each seat in a multimember district was teated as a separate office. When citizens went to the polls, they no longer voted for a set number of candidates in a larger field of contenders – for instance, three out of five. Instead, their ballots listed separate races within the district, and they had to vote for only one candidate in each race. This allowed Democratic Party captains to ensure that a Black candidate in a multimember district would always face the strongest white opponent.

As one lawmaker explained, the goal was to guarantee that "no Negro could be elected to the General Assembly."
The strategy was effective. As late as 1981, only four Black lawmakers served in the legislature. Henry E. Frye had been elected in 1968 in a multimember district without a numbered seat plan. He was the first Black politician to serve in the legislature since 1899.

In two critical legal decisions, federal courts largely dismantled the barriers to Black political participation that Democrats built in the 1950s and 1960s. Ruling in Dunston v. Scott in 1972, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina struck down both the numbered seat plans attached to multimember legislative districts and the anti-single-shot laws that applied to elections in certain counties and municipalities. Twelve years later, in Gingles v. Edmisten, the same court ordered that most multimember legislative districts be broken into new single-member districts.

The consequences were startling. By 1989, nineteen Black lawmakers served in the General Assembly. Two years later, members elected Daniel (Dan) T. Blue Jr. (below) Speaker of the House, the highest legislative office ever held by a Black politician in North Carolina's history. Blacks also made substantial gains at the local level, largely as a result of legal challenges to at-large elections and multimember districts that followed the Gingles decision. By the early 1990s, more than 400 Black elected officials served in city and county governments across the state.

Daniel (Dan) T. Blue Jr.

As Black gains mounted, a growing number of white North Carolinians began to abandon the Democratic Party rather than fight within it. They were encouraged by the Republican Party's embrace of a "southern strategy." Barry M. Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, spoke plainly. He believed that the Republican Party should "stop trying to outbid the Democrats for the Negro vote" and instead "go hunting where the ducks are" – that is, seek support among whites who resented Black gains in civil rights.

Goldwater campaign poster, 1964

Goldwater lost to President Lyndon Johnson in a landslide defeat, but Sim A. DeLapp, former chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, saw promise in his advice. He urged "members of the [white] majority" to "rise up and turn against the minority groups." The key, he said, was to revitalize the Republican Party by “us[ing] the race issue . . . to regain power."

James (Jim) C. Gardner, an upstart young Republican from solidly Democratic eastern North Carolina, rode that strategy to Congress in 1966. His supporters voiced fears of black domination like those that white supremacists stoked in 1898.

"It is not inconceivable," one woman worried, "that those very Negroes marching will one day circle our great Capitol building, demanding [that lawmakers] give them control of our nation, or face a 'non-violent' riot that will topple our government."

In the 1968 presidential election, Republican M. Richard Nixon dog whistled to the same angry whites by branding himself the "law and order" candidate. They responded with enthusiasm and helped him win the White House. Four years later, they supported his re-election and backed other Republicans who rode his coattails. Though most of North Carolina’s white voters still registered as Democrats, they elected James E. Holshouser Jr. governor – the first Republican to win that office since 1896 – and sent Willis Smith's protégé Jess Helms to the U.S. Senate.

Richard Nixon and his vice-presidential running mate, Spiro T. Agnew

By the mid-1980s, North Carolina once again had a tightly contested two-party political system. A visitor from a similar time a century before would have been confounded by the way that party labels had flipped. Democrats now resembled the party of Lincoln, and Republicans looked like the Democrats of old. But the visitor would easily have recognized the competing social visions the parties offered voters.

Democrats stressed the importance of balancing individual rights against social responsibility, contended that government had an indispensable role to play in promoting the general welfare, and viewed the prerogatives of citizenship as the birthright of every American.

Republicans were wary of government infringement on personal choice and thought of equal citizenship not as an entitlement but as a privilege to be earned.

In a society that for most of its history had stood on a foundation of slavery and Jim Crow, contests over these competing ideals were centered, more often than not, on the question of racial equality. Conservatives took a narrow view on that issue, partly out of racial animus but also because they understood that Black enfranchisement led to progressive social policies. This was at no time more obvious than in 1984 and 1990, when U.S. Senator Jesse Helms faced two Democratic challengers: Governor James (Jim) B. Hunt Jr. in the first contest and, in the second, former Charlotte mayor Harvey B. Gantt.

Jim Hunt had learned from Terry Sanford to appreciate the ways that Jim Crow blighted North Carolina with illiteracy, hunger, sickness, and want. During his first two terms as governor – from 1977 to 1985 – he persuaded lawmakers to appropriate $281 million in new spending on public education, recruited high-wage industries to North Carolina, and appointed former Chapel Hill mayor Howard Lee as the first black cabinet secretary in state history.

Early polls gave Hunt a 64 to 21 percent lead over Helms in the race for the Senate. Worried that they "couldn't beat Jim Hunt on issues," the Helms team focused on race. The campaign ran thousands of newspaper and radio ads that warned of a Black "bloc vote" for Hunt. One print ad read: "Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. wants the State Board of Elections to boost minority voter registration in North Carolina. . . . Ask yourself, is this a proper use of taxpayer money?" On Election Day, Helms bested Hunt with 52 percent of the vote.

Six years later, race was an issue by default when Harvey Gantt won the Democratic senatorial nomination. Gantt was the first Black student to attend Clemson University. After graduation, he established a successful practice as an architect in Charlotte, and in 1983 was elected mayor.

Harvey Gantt on the campaign trail, 1990

The Helms-Gantt contest was a dead heat until late in the campaign. Shortly before Election Day, Helms ran a television ad that played to white fears of Black advancement. It showed a white man's hands crumpling a rejection letter. The voice-over lamented, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. . . . You'll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms." Helms went on to win the election with 65 percent of the white vote and 53 percent of the vote overall. When Gantt challenged Helms again in 1996, the outcome was the same.

North Carolina politics settled into a wobbling equilibrium in the 1990s and 2000s. Republicans carried the state in every presidential contest until Barack Obama's election in 2008, and Jesse Helms remained in the U.S. Senate until his retirement in 2002. At the state level, Democrats controlled the governor's office for twenty years, from 1993 to 2013, and they wielded sufficient power in the legislature to press forward with a progressive agenda.

In 1992 and 1996, Jim Hunt won his third and fourth terms as governor with a promise "to change North Carolina," to build a state that would be America's model.

Working with Democratic lawmakers, he stablished Smart Start, which poured millions into preschool education; raised teachers' salaries to the national average; launched Health Choice, a program for uninsured children; and created a new Department of Juvenile Justice to address the causes of youth crime.

Hunt was also committed to inclusive government. When he left office in 2001, 22 precent of his appointees to state agencies and commissions were minorities, a figure that matched North Carolina’s demography.

In the state legislature, Democrats sought to secure these achievements by expanding minority citizens' access to the ballot box. Key legislation permitted early voting; allowed voters who went to the wrong precinct on Election Day to cast a provisional ballot; permitted same-day registration; and created a system to pre-register sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, so that they could have their names placed on the voter rolls when they turned eighteen.

The net effect of these reforms was increased political participation by minority populations. Black registration grew by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2012, as compared to just 16 percent among whites, and Black turnout followed apace. Between 2000 and 2008, it soared from 42 to 72 percent.

That level of participation was critically important in the 2008 presidential election, when Barack H. Obama won North Carolina with a margin of just 14,171 votes out of 4,271,125 ballots cast.

Astute observers noted that Latinx voters were also indispensable to Obama's North Carolina victory. They represented only 1.3 percent of total registered voters, but in a tight election, even that small number could change the outcome. Latinx voters, most of whom favored Democrats, cast 20,468 ballots in 2008, a figure larger than Obama's winning margin.

The 2008 presidential election cut two ways in North Carolina. It was the culmination of generations of struggle for equal citizenship and a sign of how profoundly the state had changed. But Obama's win was also part of a cascade of events that led quickly to coordinated efforts to restrict voting rights and roll back decades of progressive social policy.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, a near collapse of the banking system was threatening to plunge America and the rest of the world into a second Great Depression. North Carolina was one of the states hardest hit. Within a year, the unemployment rate soared to 10.9 percent. The crisis stirred the resentments of white voters who viewed the loss of jobs through a racial lens. They blamed Blacks, immigrants, and liberals rather than global capital.

Voters' fury, stoked by a wealthy, well organized national network of conservative donors, fueled what came to be called the Tea Party revolt.

Its supporters' grievances echoed a century of conservative thought and politics. They railed against Obama, whom some described as the "primate in chief," and denounced the 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as a socialist violation of individual liberty. Tea Partiers also criticized social welfare programs as a waste of taxpayers' money and launched xenophobic attacks on immigrants, who they claimed were stealing American jobs and committing heinous crimes.

Republican leaders embraced white anger and presented themselves as the party that would defy the Black president and his supporters. Ron Unz, publisher of the American Conservative, described their reasoning.

"As whites become a smaller and smaller proportion of the local population in more and more regions, they will naturally become ripe for political polarization based on appeals to their interests as whites. And if Republicans focus their campaigning on racially charged issues such as immigration and affirmative action, they will promote this polarization, gradually transforming the two national political parties into crude proxies for direct racial interESts, effectively becoming the 'white party' and the 'non-white party.'"

Unz predicted that since white voters constituted a majority of the national electorate, "the 'white party' – the Republicans – [would] end up controlling almost all political power and could enact whatever policies they desired, on racial and non-racial issues."

That assessment read like a script for North Carolina politics in the next decade. Voter discontent offered Republicans an opportunity to extend their success in presidential and senatorial elections down into campaigns for legislative seats.

Raleigh businessman James Arthur (Art) Pope – chairman and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, one of the nation’s largest privately held companies – spearheaded the Republican Party's efforts to achieve that goal.

Pope invested millions in conservative politics. He established the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute – modeled closely on the national Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes – to engage in public policy research and advocacy around issues such as taxation, public education, and social welfare.

In 2010, Pope and other conservative strategists targeted twenty-two Democratic lawmakers who were up for re-election. Racial appeals figured prominently in that effort. For instance, the executive committee of the state Republican Party mailed thousands of copies of a flier (below) that attacked state senator John J. Snow Jr. and representative L. Hugh Holliman for their support of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, a law that allowed people on death row to present evidence that racial bias played a role in their death sentences. Those who could prove discrimination would be resentenced to life in prison.

Republican campaign flier, 2010

The fliers warned voters that thanks to liberals like Hollimann and Snow, Henry McCollum, a Black man convicted of raping and killing a child, might soon be released into their neighborhoods. As it turned out, McCollum was exonerated four years later, when DNA evidence linked the crime to another man who lived near the victim and had confessed to a similar rape and murder.

Republican campaign flier, 2010

The Republican executive committee also distributed a flier (above) that attacked Democrat Chris Heagarty by appealing to ani-immigrant sentiments. It pictured “Señor” Heagarty - a sombrero atop his head and his skin darkened by photo editing - exclaiming, "Mucho Taxo,” a reference to policies that Republicans charged were destroying jobs.

On Election Day, Republicans won majorities in both houses of the state legislature. They subsequently gerrymandered legislative districts to favor their interests, and in 2012 turned their advantage into a supermajority. In that same election, voters also sent Republican Patrick (Pat) L. McCrory to the governor's office.

Months later, the U.S. Supreme Court gave North Carolina Republicans a gift. In Shelby v. Holder, the court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which safeguarded the rights of protected minorities by requiring federal "preclearnce" of changes to voting procedures in designated jurisdictions that had a demonstrable record of restricting opportunities to register and vote.

The enormity of that decision cannot be overstated. It opened the way to dismantling hard-won protections that had been vital to ending Jim Crow discrimination and re-enfranchising minority citizens.

Within hours of the Shelby ruling, Republican leaders announced that they planned to introduce legislation that would fundamentally alter the ways North Carolinians registered to vote and cast their ballots. What eventually emerged was House Bill 589, a law that would have made voting harder for Black and Latinx citizens.

House Bill 589 required that in-person voters provide one of eight forms of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. That provision would have hit Blacks particularly hard. They constituted 22 percent of the state's population but represented a third of voters who lacked the two most common forms of identification: a valid driver's license or a state-issued ID card. The law also eliminated the first week of early voting, same-day registration, and straight-ticket voting – all of which Blacks used far more often than whites.

House Bill 589 targeted young voters in similar fashion by ending pre-registration for sixteen- and seventeen-year olds. That move appears to have been targeted at Latinx voters in particular, as the chart below suggests. Most older Latinx residents in the state were not citizens, and were thefore ineligible to vote. But, as illustrated by chart below, Republicans faced a large population of Latinx teenagers who had been born in the United States, would soon be qualified to vote, and, polling showed, were inclined to support Democrats.

The darkest bars represent the number of Latinx citizens who were eligible to vote in 2012 and the number of those who were then under the age of eighteen but would become eligible in the near future.

House Bill 589 was not created in a vacuum, nor was it driven simply by racial animus. As the Civitas Institute explained, it was part of a larger legislative agenda aimed at "unraveling" decades-long efforts to expand public investment in education, health care, housing and a social safety net. That was what conservatives meant by their campaign pledge to "take back America."

To that end, the lawmakers who crafted House Bill 589 repealed the Racial Justice Act and eliminated the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which economists across the political spectrum generally agree was one of the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty. They also reduced the value and duration of unemployment compensation, refused federal funds that would have extended Medicaid coverage to more than 460,000 uninsured, low-income North Carolinians, and cut inflation-adjusted spending for schools. Later, lawmakers made these policy changes difficult to reverse by pushing through a constitutional amendment that capped corporate and individual income tax rates. That effectively dried up funds for future increases in social welfare spending.

Republicans lawmakers had the votes to brush off Democrats' objections to their overhaul of public policy, but popular outrage would not be so easily dismissed. Throughout the summer of 2013, great crowds of protesters gathered outside the legislative building in Raleigh.

Over the next year, what came to be known as the Moral Monday movement spread across North Carolina. Protesters came from every trade and profession; they were men and women, old and young, gay and straight; Christian, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers.

They stood side by side to demand a new "fusion" politics and what Reverend William J. Barber II, a Goldsboro pastor and president of the state conference of the NAACP, called a "third reconstruction."

While protesters filled the streets, the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the U.S. Department of Justice went to court. They sued, arguing that House Bill 589 constituted an "outright denial or dilution" of the right to vote.

The lead plaintiff was Rosanell Eaton, the granddaughter of slaves, a retired public school teacher, and a civil rights activist who had first registered to vote in 1942.

Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina upheld House Bill 589, but in 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed his decision. The appellate court justices concluded that the law had targeted minority voters "with almost surgical precision."

A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Republican legislative leaders' request to review the Fourth Circuit decision. Even so, Senate President Pro Tempore Philip (Phil) E. Berger (below) and Speaker of the House Timothy (Tim) K. Moore vowed that they would "continue to fight."

Senate President Pro Tempore Philip (Phil) Berger

Republicans narrowed their focus and, in 2018, drafted a constitutional amendment to require voter photo ID. They presented the amendment as a "common sense" reform needed to safeguard elections from widespread fraud. In point of fact, there was no evidence to support that claim. In a 2016 audit, the State Board of Elections had found that questionable ballots accounted for only 0.01 percent of the 4,769,640 votes cast that year.

That fact notwithstanding, voters approved the constitutional amendment in the November election. Republicans carried the day, in part, by convincing voters that fraud was rampant but remained invisible because there were no laws to expose it. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, put it this way: "Millions of North Carolinians believe (emphasis in the original) that there is voter fraud. Now, somebody can disagree with them, but they believe it. So, adding confidence into the system is a very important thing."

As we approach the 2020 election, Senate Bill 824 is tied up in court. Implementation has been enjoined by both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Judge Loretta Biggs, who wrote the district court's decision, noted there was sufficient cause to question whether Senate Bill 824 had been "impermissibly motivated, at least in part by discriminatory intent." After all, "the same key legislators who championed House Bill 589 [in 2013] were the driving force behind Senate Bill 824's passage just a few years later."

Though she knew nothing of the man, Judge Biggs echoed J. R. Gleaves, a Black civil rights activist in Winston-Salem during the 1940s, who expressed frustration with whites' determination to block Black advancement, however meager it might be.


The contest over the photo ID amendment is the latest chapter in North Carolina's long and cyclical history of struggle over minority voting rights. Many observers have described the amendment as a "solution in search of a problem." That is a reasonable enough observation, but it can obscure an important historical lesson. Modern Republicans, like other conservatives before them, have been trying to solve what they believe is a very real problem – it is not fraud, but rather the ramifications of expanded minority political participation. Throughout North Carolina's history, when minority citizens have built alliances with progressive whites and gained access to the ballot box, they have cast their votes to advance an enduring agenda for equal citizenship, civil rights, and economic justice. Like the authors of North Carolina's 1868 constitution, they have sought to establish a government that serves the "good of the whole."

Martin Luther King Jr.s captured the essence of that agenda in a 1961 address to an interracial audience of labor leaders. He described for them a radically inclusive understanding of the American Dream. His words bring to mind those spoken by James Harris and other North Carolina delegates to the Colored National Labor Convention in 1869.

King Described "a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. . . . a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are not held for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and Worth of human personality."
Today, as in King's time, that dream remains unfulfilled.

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