Further Reflections on Racism in America: (2) A Southern Experience in Politics

This segment on North Carolina starts with the context of my personal journey as a State Senator and elaborates on how I was elected to the State Senate by way of a conversion to feminism – and the necessary corollary of gender equality. The lessons learned from this experience brought me directly to a heightened appreciation for the urgency of racial equality and integration. The segment then concludes with a look at the racial and gender issues in North Carolina today.

The Background

As the first woman to be elected to the North Carolina State Senate from Guilford County, I was entering new territory. I happened to be the youngest Senator, too, but fortunately the Secretary of State recorded the dates wrong and gave that label to someone else.

Gender, though, was still a significant barrier even though I was not the first woman to have served in the Senate. But all my female predecessors had been isolated cases – never more than one at a time. And none of them had a feminist reputation or record.  The most immediate female predecessor (oddly enough a Republican from the western part of the state where old-style pre-Reconstruction Republicans still existed), had been jokingly referred to by her peers as “Honeybee Wilkie”. It seems that the only bill she ever sponsored was to have the honeybee declared the “State Insect”.  I never did meet her since she had not run for re-election.  But the isolation of being the only woman, even without the feminist label in this tradition-bound deliberative body of good ol’ boys, was probably not easy.

Fortunately for me, there did happen to be one other woman in my first term – a record for having two women out of fifty, and not just one!  (In my third term, this number had gone up to five women.) In that first term, however, the two of us were “honored” by that same Secretary of State who had gotten my birth date wrong to be assigned seats in the Senate chamber next to each other in the back. He was a crusty old recordholder in his own right (as the longest serving Secretary of State in NC history), and it was no surprise that he would use his seating assignment powers to isolate us this way. Not only that, but we were very visibly (and certainly deliberately) seated next to the two lone Republicans (male) who were treated to the same backbench treatment as the two women.  “Senatorinis”, they called the two of us –that is, our fellow good ol’ boy Democrats did. The two Republicans, of course, were basically left alone.

Discovering Feminism

Admittedly, in spite of all my reservations – and there were many – I eventually learned to live with these “good ol- boys”.  It was, as it unfolded, an unexpected opportunity to break new ground in territory that had first appeared completely unrealistic. Before I moved to North Carolina, I had visions of political activism with dreams of even running for elective office. I had, however, pretty much given up on the idea when I moved to North Carolina.  It was not a move that I would have made on my own initiative, but there was a more important reason.

Those were the days when family and culture demanded that women either get married well before they turned 30 (even younger in other cultures!)) or forever be shunted aside as spinsters with no future besides nursing or teaching and and a life of lonely meals at home. In my extended family, I had one spinster aunt (yes, a nurse) and nine married ones (all homemakers). My mother, whom I loved dearly, even admitted to some friends of hers at the breakfast before my wedding that she had feared that I had the makings of a lonely spinster (like my aunt the spinster nurse and not like the rest) since I was so academically (and politically) competitive – scaring the boys away, as it were.

Fortunately for her, I suppose, the wedding did save me from that apparent purgatory, even if it meant going to where the salvation from that purgatory was located – i.e. far away from Minnesota in the state of North Carolina. That is to say, I got married to someone who took care of that spinsterhood worry while obliging me to follow him to North Carolina, where he had started his professional career with a teaching job in international relations at a small North Carolina college. At least I was lucky enough to land a teaching job oy my own at a nearby college.

We settled in the town of Greensboro where we discovered a network of Quakers and world federalists and civil libertarians with whom we could collaborate on global causes both on and off campus. Neither the Southern version of Democrats nor the rare Republican or two had anything appealing to offer, and I had pretty much given up on the idea of becoming politically active. But we did join in the various civil rights demonstrations – and the anti-war protest movements that were spreading across the country.

One conference that we organized brought together a series of prominent national and international leaders to stimulate our awareness on the interplay of poverty, race and gender, both domestically and globally. Poverty was both a Great Society issue for the US and a development issue in the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. Race was clearly a concern of the American civil rights movement and of many independence movements internationally. And gender? Yes, this was 1969, and the women’s rights movement had begun creating headlines with images of bra-burning discontents demanding equal rights for what the media seemed to portray as “abnormal” women – all those supposed spinsters and such.

This ended up being a turning point in my discovery of real-life feminism. Not only did the feminist speakers at this conference present themselves as “normal” and “relatable” on the issue of gender; they also interacted with and drew the experts on race and development at the conference to identify the connections and opportunities for collaboration. It was serendipitous for the conferees to link these overlapping issues in such a dynamic way, and we all resonated with the relevance of their messages to the local community.

It got me going. Prodded by the state director of the ACLU and a burgeoning network of concerned women (and some men, too), the first task was to petition the local city council to establish a commission on gender, similar to the commission it had recently established on civil rights in the community. When the city council called for a year-long study to determine whether such a commission was needed, the mayor appointed me to chair the study committee.

Our newly formed group had teachers and lawyers and artists and activist homemakers, black and white, young and old. We established sub-committees to focus studies of local gender differences in education, in different age groups, in job categories, in banking and housing, in civil society organizations, in churches, in business organizations – you name it. We did public opinion surveys, we held hearings, we talked to leaders and regular folks. The local papers and TV stations had a heyday covering all that we did, topped off by a successful recommendation to the city council that there were enough gender disparities in the community to justify a focused and continuing effort. No one was willing to suggest that the disparities were attributable to any sort of intentional or unjust discrimination, but it was still a bold decision.

The Greensboro City Council approved the formation of a standing Commission on the Status of Women to improve opportunities and policies affecting both women and men, in parallel with the Commission on Civil Rights. The team of women’s rights advocates that came out of that effort proved to be the inspiration and support for my running for public office, something that I had thought was out of the question for someone like me in North Carolina. And this was indeed a group of feminists, people from many walks of life, both men and women, who had concluded that equal rights for men and women was a worthy cause for them to embrace.

It was also significant that the Democratic Party’s Southern base was finally undergoing something of a revolution, aided by the combination of civil rights and anti-war protestors and the splintering of the Wallace and Humphrey votes in the 1968 presidential election. By 1972, in Greensboro, Raleigh and the other urban centers of the state, a new progressive leadership had mobilized enough support to replace the old guard in these urban areas but not yet at the state level.

On the other hand, 1972 also saw North Carolina elect its first Republican governor since Reconstruction.  And although the governor came from the western part of the state where old-style Republicanism from the days of Reconstruction had never disappeared, his victory came from a coalition with the newer more conservative converts (i.e. segregationists) who were deserting the Democratic Party in the east. Thus, the transition was under way. Democrats at the state level, however, were still a mix of the new and old guard. They would win back the governorship and retain control of the state legislature, albeit with ever growing Republican minorities.

Lessons learned along the way – on gender

The political alignments, however, weren’t so clearcut in the 1970s as they are today. The overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in the 1970s was still driven by an old guard of white men. There were efforts among the progressive minority within the Democratic majority to eliminate discrimination in the election laws, to improve childcare and welfare services, and pursue judicial reform, among other agenda items. But these rarely prevailed against the old guard.

In addition, there were significant gender issues. This was a time when the Equal Rights Amendment was a hot issue, and North Carolina could have been the 35th state to ratify the ERA. The vote was close but failed on four different tries in 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981.  In the same way as I had worked with the Greensboro City Council to endorse an end to gender disparities, I persuaded both sides of the ERA vote to consider how state laws could be revised in a gender-neutral way without affecting the rights of dependents to be protected. We established a massive legislative study commission that produced a host of bills to remove all legal terminology that treated men and women differently while also ensuring that families could still have supporting and dependent spouses. Most of this legislation was successful, but the opponents of the ERA still blocked its ratification.

Lessons learned from this legislative experience were largely oriented to the importance of coalition-building. First, I learned that balance had to be found between what one believes is right and what will persuade others to join you. I learned quickly that my male colleagues were critical of any woman who “talked too much”.  I learned to be very cryptic in describing any of the bills that I sponsored on the floor of the Senate.  Often caught off guard by this technique that deprived them of gearing up enough time to raise objections to this upstart and unfamiliar female Senator, my male colleagues let many of my bills sail through. Most were relatively non-controversial, but I did pull off one major election law change that Common Cause had asked me to sponsor. When it surprisingly passed, one of my colleagues buttonholed me outside the chamber and said, “Congratulations, you’re now a member of the club.”  I had learned how to get legislation through, and it was going to be something more than making the honeybee the state insect!

The more important message, though, was that stereotypes are difficult to overcome. Anyone in a visible minority had to learn how to speak selectively. On this, my friend Henry Frye, as the first African-American to be elected to the General Assembly in the twentieth century – in this regard it was also the same district that elected me –  was the real trailblazer. Playing the game when you’re the only black in the whole legislature means doing your utmost to persuade all those “others” to hear you – not necessarily as “one of them” but as someone who knows how to cajole “them” to listen! But there is also the constant frustration of not being heard at all and having a male (or a white male) say the same thing and elicit agreement as if the point was his to make!

Related to that point, I learned that credibility in the eyes of those white men who are inclined to dismiss you on gender or racial grounds, can be enhanced with typically white male “credentials”. In that package of bills to make the NC statutes gender-neutral was one on property law that hit a snag in the Judiciary Committee. I came prepared to explain the bill, of course, in terms of what the existing case law had interpreted it to mean and why it needed to be changed. The old guard lawyer legislators on the committee, however, got into quite an argument about the case law and dismissed my arguments on why it needed to be changed because I was not a lawyer and therefore didn’t know what I was talking about!  It so happens that I had been getting a lot of encouragement from others to go back to school to get a law degree. I decided then and there that I would do it. It’s not that my credibility would have been enhanced with the possession of a degree, of course, but it is clear that these committee members could resist the proposed changes simply by citing the my lack of credentials. (Forget that I had a Ph.D. and knew how to conduct research.)

This matter of credentials, though, was not so clearcut as simply getting that law degree. As my black colleagues encountered time and again, credibility required more than credentials. It required anticipating the challenges to that credibility. I have a vivid memory of a very different setting when I was serving on one of President Carter’s judicial nominating panels, this one for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, when the panel was deliberating the credentials for including Julius Chambers, a prominent civil rights lawyer from North Carolina, as one of five nominees. One of the panel members, a distinguished white male lawyer from South Carolina, objected to his candidacy because he thought he had “only” graduated top of his law school class from North Carolina’s black law school. I pointed out that Mr. Chambers was in fact the first black to graduate from the previously all-white UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school and that he had graduated from that law school as the top student in his class.

This South Carolina individual still voted against Mr. Chambers, but there were enough panelist on the other side to get him included on the list. Later, though, I was accused by both Senator Robert Morgan and Duke University President Terry Sanford, a former governor and US Senator himself, of being a laughing stock for having included Mr. Chambers on the list. And, not surprisingly, President Carter did not appoint him to the bench since even the maneuver of a nominating panel could not overturn the tradition of appointees being cleared by their home state US Senators.

A third lesson I learned is that those who you would think are your closest allies are not necessarily the ones you can count on.  This is especially so among women and perhaps less so among other groups who find themselves in a minority.  For example, in my first term in the State Senate, I was one of the two women in the Senate, as previously noted, but we came from very different parts of the state and were not competing with each other. On the other hand, I was in a multi-member delegation (seven House members and three Senate members) from Guilford County, and through all three terms that I served in the delegation, there was always a competitive edge with the only other female in the delegation who was also a Democrat.  It was only when there were more than two women in the same group that collaboration became possible.

Lessons learned along the way – on the Intermingling of Race and Gender Issues

For me, getting elected to the State Senate from Guilford County depended on a Democratic Party that combined white progressives and the African American community with a new embrace of gender issues, but it also meant a focused outreach to the concerns of the African American community more generally.  While I was certainly elected with a base of supporters expecting me to advance women’s rights and gender equality, I was deeply committed to civil rights as well, both in principle and in real life.

The community itself had two public universities – NC A&T State University was a historically black public university while UNC-Greensboro was historically a women’s (white) university – and three private colleges – Guilford College where I taught, a Quaker school that finally moved toward integration in 1968, Greensboro College (traditionally for white women) and Bennett College (traditionally for black women). There were events that brought the academic communities together – as in that transformative conference on race, poverty and gender. But it was the YWCA where the opportunities arose for integrating the gender issues with the civil rights issues, starting with, for me, the focus on voting and local elections.

Black voter turnout, aided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had started to be organized in the urban parts of the state. In Greensboro, this was accomplished by a leadership independent of but aligned with the newly emergent progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  In both local city council and state legislative elections, furthermore, multi-member districts meant that targeted voting could make a big difference in the election of black candidates. It was the Greensboro black leadership and endorsement of targeting voting that had resulted in the election in 1969 of the first black to the state legislature since Reconstruction, Henry Frye.  Here was the first sign of what the Voting Rights Act was intended to enable.

By the time I was first elected in 1974, the successful voter registration and targeted voting strategy in the urban districts across North Carolina and not just in Greensboro, picked up more winners. There were two African-Americans who were elected to the State Senate (out of 50 seats) from Raleigh and Charlotte, and four African-Americans won seats in the House (out of 120 seats).  The endorsing committees did, of course, endorse other candidates where there were no blacks in the race, but very selectively so. I became a beneficiary of that system, and I would clearly not have been elected for three terms without this support – and without earning it through working on issues of particular concern to the black community, such as raising funds for research on sickle cell anemia (which ended up being one of my main health-related activities in those days, along with mental health and reproductive rights).

However, targeting selectively in multi-member districts did have its limits. The black representation did not grow any further until the state was compelled to shift, as facilitated by the application of the Voting Rights Act, to single-member legislative districts. This was aided by the black legislators organizing themselves into a formal coalition in 1982, a coalition which still exists today (unlike the lack of organization among female legislators). In 1984, after this change to single-member districts, the total of black candidates elected to the House jumped from four to 16. (I don’t recall the numbers for the State Senate, but I believe that the number grew from two to at least four or five, one of whom, I know, was from Guilford County.)

In all likelihood, I would not have been elected in a single-member district for either Senate or House. It was the coalition of white progressives with the black community that elected me in the first place. I would not have taken the place of a black candidate in a predominantly black single-member district, and I would have had difficulty, even as an incumbent, to be re-elected in a predominantly white district. In any case, I moved on to other opportunities and would have considered running for a Congressional seat when the revered blueblood but moderate Democratic incumbent was defeated by a brash and extremist Republican. That was in 1980 and only a temporary sign of the changing times. But a short-lived Democratic victory in 1982 and then the election of a savvy but very conservative Republican in 1984 signaled the transition of white voters to the Republican Party that was already underway throughout rest of the South. This fellow stayed in that office until 2013 – the longest serving member of Congress from North Carolina ever!

The Continuing Challenge of ending Racism

A spillover from this point is that racism is more difficult to change in our American culture than sexism.  That movement to single-member districts for the state legislature was an important breakthrough for almost quadrupling the number of black legislators from the days when strategic targeting was the only effective way to elect blacks. The challenge, though, is how to move beyond that. Must and can blacks only be elected in predominantly black districts?

I had moved on to a White House Fellowship and a law degree when I was recruited in 1982 to apply my campaign financing and fund raising skills to a different Congressional campaign. This one was for my friend and colleague in the NC General Assembly, Mickey Michaux who wanted to be the first black elected to Congress from North Carolina since Reconstruction. He happened to be living in Durham at the edge of one of North Carolina’s eastern Congressional districts. In fact, it was the Congressional district with the best prospects for a black candidate to win a Congressional seat.

Historically, the district was made up of counties with mostly black majorities. It had elected all four of the blacks who had been elected to Congress from North Carolina in the nineteenth century. Even with segregation and Jim Crow laws that blocked blacks from holding public offices, the district was known as “the Black Second”. However, the Great Migration of the mid-twentieth century had contributed to black population in the district having declined to only 40% in 1982, but it was still seen as the best hope.

Mickey Michaux was the strongest of several candidates in the Democratic primary, but he had several white challengers. Although he received the most votes in the first primary, he did not garner over 50% and had to compete in a runoff primary against the contender with the next highest votes.  We tried to mobilize a coalition of both financial supporters and voters that could result in a majority for him in the runoff, but it did not happen. His white opponent got all the white votes, and Mickey got all the black votes.

The NC legislature did change the law in 1989, largely driven by what had happened in this 1982 primary.  The legislation lowered the requirement from 50 % to 40% in the first primary for a winner to be declared for a party’s nomination.  It seems that the Republicans in the legislature (by then there were more than two but still not a majority) supported the change in the expectation that it would help Republican candidates against Democratic candidates with less than majority support. The political scene continued to be difficult for black candidates.

However, in 1992 and as a result of increased population in the 1990 census, North Carolina had one more Congressional district, and all of the district lines had to be redrawn.  In addition, the state was being challenged to comply with the Voting Rights Act and the charge that prior districting had effectively diluted black voter strength. The General Assembly, still operating with Democratic majorities in House and Senate dominated mostly by old-style white Democrats, finally voted to move a substantial portion of the black counties from this “Black Second” to a neighboring district. That neighboring district ended up with a black plurality (45% African American to 43% White and a growing Hispanic population of some 9 %), and it has elected a black to Congress ever since. Unfortunately, the reconfigured Second District became a white (and conservative Republican) stronghold, with a black population whittled down to 20%. (Mickey Michaux ended up returning to his House seat in the NC General Assembly, where he served until his retirement in 2019.)

At the same time, the General Assembly configured another of the state’s 12 Congressional districts to be predominantly black. This one, though, created quite a stir since it looked like a snake slithering down from Durham in the east through Greensboro in the center and down to Charlotte in the southwest, taking in the black neighborhoods in each city. The result was a district that was 64% black in such a gerrymandered way that it looked like a version of apartheid. That district was the subject of litigation that went to the US Supreme Court some 5 times before it was finally settled to be reconfigured primarily around Charlotte. Its demographics are now 38% African American, and 41% White but with 15% Hispanic and 6% Asian. It is a solidly Democratic district and currently has a black representative.

That said, the continuing judicial review of North Carolina’s redistricting plans affecting both Congressional and state legislative districts is dramatic. Although there are more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, Congressional districts have been skewed to favor Republicans for the better part of the past twenty years at least. In 2018, for example, the Congressional delegation was 9 Republicans to 3 Democrats.  This was altered through a quirky state of court-ordered redistricting for the 2020 elections, with a temporary two-seat gain for Democrats (now 7 to 5).   Unfortuntely, however, redistricting following the 2020 census will probably reverse this gain in the hands of Republican majorities in the state legislature.

At the state level, in the most recent election for which I have any data, 2018, the General Assembly had 10 blacks in the State Senate and 26 blacks in the State House. (To the list of minorities in the current General Assembly (October 2020), one could add two Indian-Americans and one Native American.)  With a population statewide that today is 22% black, 9 % Hispanic, 3 % Asian and 2% Native American. the legislature leadership structure remains skewed under the control of an all-white Republican leadership structure that isn’t much different from the all-white leadership structure that I dealt with in the 1970s. In fact, all the Republicans in both House and Senate today, and not just the leadership, are white, while all the minorities in either House or Senate are Democrats.

Application of the Voting Rights Act had helped to compel court-ordered redistricting, but this was been complicated by the tendency of a Republican majority to manipulate redistricting to its own advantage. It seems that some of the redistricting of predominantly black districts has been driven by an interest in making sure that all the predominantly white districts around them are solidly Republican. Challenges to these maneuvers have been made more difficult by the Supreme Court’s essentially wiping out the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (Shelby v. Holder). And of course, the Republican majorities in these Southern states have also enacted all kinds of reversals and barriers in the voting laws as well as in their redistricting activities as a result of this ruling.

And to return to the gender issue, there remains a lot of ways that women’s rights continue to be hampered from full realization. While the number of elected women has grown since those early record-breaking years of the 1970s, their current level of representation in the North Carolina General Assembly is nowhere near the 50% of the population of the state that are women. It is more like half that at some 26% of the legislature – ten women out of 50 in the Senate, and another 34 out of 120 in the House.  Furthermore, there is a roughly one-third to two-thirds split of Republicans to Democrats among the women.  They simply do not operate as a bloc, even on specifically gender-oriented issues.

In conclusion on this segment, we are a long way from the days when old guard Southern Democrats controlled the state. The Democratic Party realignment began with the mix of civil rights, anti-war protests and women’s rights in the 1970s, while the old guard moved over to the Republican Party. Jesse Helms was in the forefront of that shift that first reflected itself in national and Presidential elections. By 2010, enough of that old guard had moved over to convert North Carolina to a Republican majority in state and local elections.  It has involved quite a bit of backsliding on basic civil and voting rights, even on integration in the schools.

Looking to the future, we can hope that a new realignment is on its way. Growing Hispanic and Asian populations are adding to the diversity of the population – not only in North Carolina but nonetheless with important ramifications in North Carolina.  And while the state is still 71% white, there is enough progressivism among whites, at least in the urban areas, to align with the majority of African Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans to make it a competitive state once again. One has to wonder if it will ever get to a point where racial identity won’t matter, but we can’t realistically expect to get there without achieving an end to all of the social and economic inequities, and especially those that are based on race, that still exist in American society.

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