The muted response to North Carolina Republicans’ proposed gerrymandered maps is quite revealing. The last time they set out to slice and dice North Carolina for partisan advantage, in 2011, political observers reacted with horror at the party’s cynicism. After a decade of rampant gerrymandering and rule-rigging, even the most idealistic North Carolinians have internalized an expectation that Republicans will exploit every possible tool to entrench their party’s majorities. Our political, and moral standards, have declined along with our democracy.
In fact, 2011 is too short a time frame to understand what is taking place here. Since our first attempt at multi-racial democracy, the White Right has responded to every advance with a swift and well-organized backlash. The commonalities among white backlashes since the rise of the biracial Fusion government in 1894 are far greater than the granular, nuts-and-bolts distinctions that set them slightly apart. A clear theme emerges when one contemplates the pendulum swings in North Carolina’s searching quest to fulfill its American principles. White reactionaries will not tolerate multi-racial democratic rule.
In the late 1800s, small white farmers had suffered so much economic hardship they were willing to put their racism aside and form a coalition with Black North Carolinians. The resulting coalition fused the largely white, economically progressive Populist Party with the majority-Black Republican Party–hence, Fusion. Under the Fusion legislature and Governor Daniel Russell, North Carolina restored home rule to county governments, thus enabling Black majorities to elect Black politicians to local office, and made the state’s election laws the fairest in the South. Nowhere else in the Old Confederacy did African Americans hold as much political power as in North Carolina.
White Conservatives were furious. They saw the rise of Black leaders not as a fulfillment of democratic dreams but as a nefarious plot for “Black Domination.” Backed by big business (particularly railroad companies that had been accustomed to obeisance from the legislature), they launched what would come to be known as the White Supremacy Campaigns. Charles Aycock, a lawyer and politician from Wayne County, crisscrossed the state giving speeches and serving barbecue to crowds that seethed with racism. Paramilitary forces commanded by Klan leader Alfred Waddell overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington. By the end of the Campaign, a majority of white voters had determined to end the state’s experiment in genuine democracy. African Americans would be denied their right to self-government for 65 years.
With white supremacy secure but economic unrest mounting, the state’s white establishment in the 1930s went to work once again to sabotage progressive leadership. In 1936 a Winston-Salem legislator named Ralph McDonald launched a spirited campaign for governor. He promised a “New Deal for North Carolina”–horrifying a conservative state establishment that had worked to block New Deal programs within the state’s borders. The so-called Shelby Dynasty went to work stealing the election from McDonald, distributing tens of thousands of dollars in cash and committing blatant voter fraud in machine-controlled western counties. McDonald was certain he had had the election stolen from him. Few informed citizens found that claim implausible.
And now we come to today. Between 1997 and 2007, the Democratic-controlled North Carolina General Assembly steadily liberalized voting laws. By the 2008 election, we had some of the most generous early voting opportunities in the country and Black voter-registration rates had skyrocketed. That allowed Obama to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Jimmy Carter. Shocked, outraged, and determined, the Republicans who won the legislature in 2010 launched the most aggressive anti-democracy campaign seen in America since the days of Reconstruction and Southern Redemption. Voter suppression, dark money, and gerrymandering combined into a stunning assault on representative democracy.
Every time North Carolina has tried to fulfill the promise of American democracy, reactionaries have mobilized to reverse the progress we’ve made. If at some point in the future Democrats regain the legislature, they should attempt once again to help democracy blossom. But they should fully expect another white backlash, and another after that. As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.