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.
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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.
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.
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.