I have a friend in the Deep South who acquainted with North Carolina's history of progressivism but also its recent political reversal, takes some pleasure in saying that the state's official bumper sticker should be "The Last Southern State to Do All the Bad Things—and Do Them Even Worse."
Well, why not an official bumper sticker? There have been—either proposed or enacted into law—official state books (the Bible), state guns (in Tennessee, the .50-caliber rifle), and so forth. And North Carolina, with HB 2 and any number of other regressive laws, certainly deserves this particular sticker.
The Tar Heel state, in fact, is a latecomer to this competition among Southern states to pass legislation so outrageous that it draws national ridicule. Historically, Alabama and Mississippi have stood out, and they are still strong contenders. So is Tennessee (apparently the Scopes trial wasn't enough). And Georgia, particularly if we go back a bit, has also been a serious player.
In 1920, H.L. Mencken, in his scathing essay "The Sahara of the Bozart" (that's the way he assumed Southerners would spell "Beaux Arts"), took out after the South in general: "For all its size and all its wealth and all the 'progress' it babbles of, [the South] is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. ... In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera house ...." Mencken, who could make language dance and sing, continued his catalog of deficiencies for several more pages. He ridiculed nearly all the states of the late Confederacy, but Mencken found Georgia, with its combination of boosterism and evangelical religion, "perhaps the worst" in Dixie—"crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious."
And North Carolina, Mencken had concluded by the mid-twenties, was the best. It had not always been that way. In the early eighteenth century, William Byrd of Virginia, noting its propensity to sloth, called North Carolina "Lubberland." A century later, the notable English actress Fanny Kemble, taking a trip through eastern North Carolina, considered it the most miserable place she had ever seen. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Tar Heel state had taken a great leap forward (relative to Southern neighbors, at least), largely because it fled the romance of the Old South and turned a critical eye on itself and Dixie.
By midcentury the state boasted the South's most prominent liberal spokesman, Frank Porter Graham, UNC president and a U.S. senator from 1949–1950, when he was done in by a race-baiting campaign assisted by a young Jesse Helms, making his first appearance on the public stage. Small, determined, plain-living, and high-thinking, Graham became a liberal martyr, a sort of Tar Heel Gandhi, but he was succeeded by such moderate-to-liberal figures as governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, who contributed greatly to the spirit that brought to North Carolina the Research Triangle Park and a progressive reputation. And William Friday, president of the UNC system for thirty years, became one of the most respected figures in American higher education.
Sure, there was Helms, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, but Helms's influence was felt largely on the national level. On the state level, even North Carolina's Republican governors—only two in the twentieth century—were pro-education moderates. The state's progressive image lasted into the first decade of the twenty-first century; it gave its electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2008.
We know, of course, what happened after that: the Republicans took the legislature in 2010, the governorship in 2012, the UNC Board of Governors (appointed by the legislature) by 2014, by which time a reactionary revolution was well underway. To some outsiders, the revolution might have seemed puzzling, because it departed in many ways from the usual Southern script—which is to say, a takeover led by a state's own worst elements ("poor whites no longer poor," in Mencken's words). Although there had long been a native North Carolina insurgency fueled by a hatred of Carolina progressivism, what happened was led not by neo-Confederates but rather by neo-carpetbaggers.
As poet and South-watcher James Seay has observed, the current leaders of North Carolina's war against progressivism—even against moderation—have been not native North Carolinians but outsiders: Governor Pat McCrory, born in Ohio; Senate leader Phil Berger, in New York; John Fennebresque, now-departed chairman of the reactionary UNC Board of Governors, also in New York. Mine is hardly an anti-Yankee sentiment: many outsiders have come into and greatly enriched the life of North Carolina, including Harry Woodburn Chase, who as UNC president engineered its leap into national prominence in the 1920s. But Chase and others were public-spirited men with a deep commitment to the common good. McCrory, Berger, and U.S. Senator Thom Tillis have seemed to have no regard for—and in some cases have been openly antagonistic toward—the spirit that earned North Carolina a measure of national respect over the past century.
So neo-carpetbaggers then, but with a twist that might surprise those accustomed to another traditional Southern narrative, since the original carpetbaggers, who came south in the late 1860s and 1870s, positioned themselves on the political left. The current crop of largely Northern outsiders—a category that, to Southerners, traditionally has suggested wild-eyed Yankee liberals—position themselves as conservative guardians of "North Carolina values," while the leading progressives, including Democratic attorney general and McCrory challenger Roy Cooper, are largely homegrown.
Others have calculated the enormous social and economic damage caused by the reactionary revolution, and particularly HB 2, but it is the well-deserved ridicule of a once-proud state, one that often considered itself superior to the rest of Dixie, that interests me here. In the public relations battle, it has fallen behind Mencken's "worst" state, Georgia, whose current Republican governor, Nathan Deal, recently vetoed both a so-called religious freedom bill and a bill allowing people to carry guns on college campuses. It has also fallen behind South Carolina (even South Carolina), whose governor, Nikki Haley, led the fight last summer to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds and just recently refused to consider a bathroom bill similar to North Carolina's.
The clear reason, both in Georgia and South Carolina, was not morality so much as economic self-interest. Atlanta learned that lesson fifty years ago in the midst of the civil rights movement, when it pronounced itself "The City Too Busy to Hate" (busy as in business: bigotry didn't pay), thus distancing itself from its then rival, Birmingham, which, at the same time, acquired a less winning name—"Bombingham"—that doomed it for decades.
Not the noblest of reasons, business and public relations, but they work—for states, that is, other than today's North Carolina. An unwavering adherence to a perverse creed of bigotry—not to be compromised even by the almighty dollar or national reputation—now reigns in the Tar Heel state. In some respects, it is surprising that North Carolina did not tumble into the abyss earlier. Aside from its universities and progressive urban areas, it is not so different from the rest of the South. But we thought it was, and for a long time, so did much of the rest of the country. Pride goeth before a fall, and, for North Carolina, the fall has been a particularly painful one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost Legacy"
Fred Hobson is the Lineberger Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at the University of North Carolina. He is currently writing a book called The Savage South: Reflections on an Image.