Most North Carolinians have put the recent primary elections aside. They’ve forgotten the losers — and some of the winners, too.
Truth is, this year’s primaries never did get many North Carolinians all that excited — even though there were strong candidates competing in several important races. In almost every part of the state, voting percentages were very low — a worrisome fact for those who believe spirited public participation is essential to ensure a democracy’s continued good health.
But 50 years ago, North Carolina had quite a different primary and runoff-election experience: Voters came out in record numbers.
A surprising number of people today still remember that election and can tell you how the bitter struggle divided the state. Some of those who “remember” it were not even born yet in 1950. But they know the story well, because it’s been told over and over again, handed down from political generation to generation. In the telling, the tale often assumes an Old Testament flavor, with God’s chosen people — and their candidate — standing up against the Pharaoh or the Philistines. And there’s often a moral lesson or example to be gleaned and remembered.
Even objective observers of North Carolina history agree that the 1950 U.S. Senate primary between Frank Graham and Willis Smith really helped define this state.
Thus, anyone who wants to understand North Carolina politics today should know a little something about this contest and how it fits into the state’s history.
I think there should be some kind of 50th-anniversary event. Maybe it would be something like the great 50th reunion, in 1913, of Union and Confederate soldiers who had clashed at Gettysburg in 1863. By that time, these Civil War soldiers had put aside their quarrel and were ready to celebrate the peace and their reunified country.
But we won’t see any such celebration this year: Too many of the participants in the Graham/Smith battle are still at war, not ready for reconciliation. So those who haven’t heard the story will probably have to learn about it on their own.
One way to catch up would be to read Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina by Julian Pleasants and Augustus Burns, published by the UNC Press in 1990. You can find the book in nearly every public library in North Carolina.
In the meantime, here are some of the basics about the Graham/Smith contest: In 1949, Gov. Kerr Scott appointed UNC President Frank Graham to a vacant U. S. Senate seat. Graham was as close to a liberal on race and social issues as a Southerner could be, back in those days. So conservative Democrats recruited Willis Smith to run against Graham in the 1950 primary.
Back then, winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Smith was a distinguished Raleigh attorney who had served as president of the American Bar Association. At the beginning of the campaign, both men enjoyed wide respect throughout the state — even from those who disagreed with them.
Graham led the first primary, in May 1950, with 48.9 percent of the vote.
Smith had 40.5 percent. Under today’s rules, Graham would have been declared the winner. But in those days, unless a candidate reached 50 percent, the second-place finisher could call for a runoff. At first, Smith declined to do this. But then his supporters, including the young Jesse Helms, orchestrated an impressive show of public support that persuaded Smith to change his mind.
Smith’s campaign faced an enormous challenge in the runoff — how to persuade large numbers of working-class Democrats to vote for a conservative, business-oriented lawyer. If these folks voted their economic interests, they probably wouldn’t support Smith.
But in 1950, there were two compelling issues that would persuade a lot of North Carolina whites to vote against their economic interests: race and communism.
Smith’s supporters used both issues. Although Smith distanced himself from his supporters’ tactics, they clearly “played the race card.” Fliers, newspaper ads and mail used crude, inflammatory language to assert that Graham supported mixing the races — in the workplace and everywhere else. And, to a lesser degree, Smith’s followers played up Graham’s membership in organizations that were supposedly communist “fronts.” Graham refused to respond in kind, though his supporters tried to inflame voters against Smith’s “big business” leanings. In the end, the tactics of Smith’s supporters won the runoff election for their candidate.
Why does the Graham/Smith contest still resonate today? One reason is that some of our influential elder statesmen cut their teeth in that battle. Jesse Helms and newspaper publisher Hoover Adams worked on the Smith side; former UNC President William Friday was a campaign worker and driver for Graham. Hundreds of others got their start in this campaign — and still remember.
Another reason is that the tactics used in the Graham/Smith contest still work today. Jesse Helms always draws enough support from working people concerned about race and communist influence to hold onto his Senate seat — using the same basic strategy that worked for Smith in 1950.
So there won’t be any big reunion events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Graham/Smith election battle. And, when you think about it, maybe that’s the way it ought to be, since the battle is still being fought — and it’s not yet clear which side will win.