Is North Carolina really a progressive state?

Progressive compared to what? Mississippi? Utah? South Carolina? Indiana? And what about Asheville? Where does it fit into the idea (which has been around since the 1950s) that North Carolina is a progressive state?

When same-sex couples marched to the Buncombe County Courthouse in January seeking marriage licenses, were they spitting in the wind or ushering in the winds of change? For that matter, can Asheville even be considered part of North Carolina? Is this city an aberration or a prototype of our state’s future?

Still, for those who too smugly deride other states and cultures without honestly examining their own, a sampling of recent North Carolina history might prove instructive.

In an act of symbolic defiance, for example, North Carolina declined to approve the 19th Amendment until 1971 — more than 50 years after it gave women the right to vote. Only Mississippi waited longer, eventually ratifying the law in 1984.

When the N.C. General Assembly finally got around to approving women’s suffrage, they did it unanimously, spending hours lauding women’s contributions to the state. Still, mere weeks later, those same hypocritical legislators crushingly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment aimed at ensuring equal treatment for women, thus helping sink its chances of ratification. The ERA eventually fell three states short.

Utah, dominated by conservative Mormons, nevertheless gave women the right to vote in 1870 and enshrined it in the state’s constitution in 1895. So who’s more progressive on women’s issues: North Carolina, Mississippi or Utah?

Ever heard of the Pearsall Plan? Overwhelmingly approved by North Carolina voters in another referendum in 1956, it aimed to thwart the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which called for desegregating the public schools. The plan prevented blacks from transferring to white schools while allowing white students to be excused from attending integrated schools if their parents objected. Those white students would be given vouchers to attend private schools. Sound familiar?

Although the law was ruled unconstitutional in 1968 and 1969, N.C. did not repeal it until 1995. In the interim, one of the plan’s authors, Tom Ellis, became the architect of Jesse Helms’ successful Senate campaigns and of the National Congressional Club. Described by the Federal Election Commission as a “multimillion-dollar political empire of corporations, political action committees and ad hoc groups,” the NCC spurred the national conservative movement of the 1980s. Both Ellis and Helms believed that while they couldn’t turn back the clock on civil rights legislation, they could dismantle it piece by piece, beginning with public education, without ever mentioning race.

Speaking of racism, did you know that in the 1960s, North Carolina had more Ku Klux Klan members than all the other Southern states combined? Writers called it “Klansville, USA,” and North Carolinians displayed Confederate flags and symbols on their vehicles while popularizing the slogan, “Be a Man! Join the Klan!” Overall, there probably were more burnings, beatings, shootings, and racial violence here than in Mississippi, though no civil rights marchers were murdered here during that tumultuous decade. That came later — in Greensboro in 1979. Nonetheless, North Carolina’s more “progressive” Klan didn’t wear hoods, included women and children in its marches, and sponsored community pig pulls.

In 1963, the General Assembly barred communists, outside agitators, and those who sought to overthrow the government from speaking on public university campuses. The ban was aimed at that “liberal university” in Chapel Hill and its pesky students, but it would also have applied to Robert E. Lee (not to mention many Tea Party Texans). A federal court declared the law unconstitutional in 1968, but the state didn’t repeal it until 1995, apparently a good year for jettisoning dubious legislation.

Ever hear of the Wilmington 10? Arrested in 1971 on spurious arson charges, they were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison in one of the worst and most vindictive show trials in American history. All but one were black, and the case drew international condemnation. Gov. Bev Perdue finally pardoned them last year as she was preparing to leave office.

Although the longue durée of North Carolina history is riddled with often hesitantly progressive impulses and figures, overall this remains one of the nation’s most reactionary states. The difference is that we come to our bigotry and prejudices in a more sophisticated fashion. That’s the North Carolina way, and Jesse Helms, among others, understood it only too well.

Asheville, you may say, is another matter, but even that is a recent development. All that separates today’s tolerant city from the 1970s town beset by racial turmoil is a single generation, a few women mayors and City Council members, and a now thriving downtown.

Nonetheless, Asheville today fittingly embodies North Carolina’s state motto, esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem. Or, in this case, to be progressive and not just seem so.

— Retired UNCA history professor Milton Ready lives in Mars Hill.

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