A national political reporter recently asked me how I would explain North Carolina politics to a class of college students.
“One word,” I told him: “Race.”
It has always been about race. It still is.
The latest front is the battle at UNC-Chapel Hill over tenure for a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Conservatives cloak their objections to her in academic robes. But they dislike Nikole Hannah-Jones, a UNC alumna and New York Times reporter, because she produced “The 1619 Project” about slavery’s impact on America.
As with conservative complaints about public schools teaching “critical race theory,” opposition to her is aimed at stifling uncomfortable discussions about history — and stirring political passions.
The 1619 Project goes to an inescapable and fundamental contradiction in American history: Our great nation is the only one founded on a set of ideals: freedom, liberty and equality. Yet, our nation was also built on the cruel, ugly brutality of human slavery.
Our Constitution was designed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Yet, it also protected slavery.
Thomas Jefferson wrote eloquently in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Yet, Jefferson owned slaves and fathered children by an enslaved woman. Four of our first five Presidents — George Washington, Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — owned slaves.
Slavery caused secession and the Civil War.
This tension between the ideals of 1776 and the reality of 1619 — and its impact on our history — is worth studying.
But powerful forces in North Carolina don’t want that study: the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, the John Locke Foundation and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
The latter two are creations of conservative megadonor Art Pope, who sits on the UNC Board of Governors. The ultimate opposition to Hannah-Jones, some at UNC believe, comes from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
This is nothing new in North Carolina politics.
The right of Blacks to vote — and white opposition to that right — dominated the decades after the Civil War. The white supremacy campaign at the end of the 19th Century disenfranchised Blacks for 60 years. The civil rights movement in the 1960s led to the rise of the Republican Party and, ultimately, to today’s politics.
Race has infused modern campaigns since Willis Smith’s “White People Wake Up” campaign against Frank Porter Graham in 1950. Graham was President of UNC.
Conservatives have always resented the university; they think it turns too many young men and women into liberals. That’s why the General Assembly passed the infamous Speaker Ban Law in 1963.
Jesse Helms, who had a hand in the Willis Smith campaign, editorialized on television in the 1960s against alleged communists at UNC and against civil rights. Race-baiting helped him win five U.S. Senate campaigns. When Jim Hunt challenged him in 1984, Helms filibustered (unsuccessfully) against the national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since 2011, the conservative majority in North Carolina’s legislature has pursued a voter ID law that one court said targeted Blacks with “almost surgical precision.”
Now, the targets are “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project.
Growing up in North Carolina and working in politics, I’ve seen this over and over all my life. But I’m hopeful.
Last week, 1,619 UNC-CH alums signed a newspaper ad protesting the handling of Hannah-Jones’s tenure. More than 90% of them graduated after 1990.
They, like many young North Carolinians today, are free of the prejudices of older generations. They’re committed to a fair and just society.
They’re stepping up. They’re ready to move North Carolina forward, not backward.
More power to them.
Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000).