Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. He was only 39 years old but had won the Nobel Peace Prize and was probably already the most famous African American in U.S. history. His death cemented his legacy and reputation as one of the country’s greatest leaders.
King visited North Carolina numerous times during his career. At the time of his assassination, it was a very different state than it is today. We were in the midst of a political and social transition. The Democratic Party that had ruled with virtually no opposition since the turn of the 20th century was fracturing along racial lines. The Jim Crow era was quickly coming to end as schools were on the brink of desegregating.
While North Carolina avoided much of the violence that defined the deep South, our state leaders resisted desegregation, too. While governors in other states were standing in the school house door, North Carolina politicians created legal and bureaucratic obstacles to desegregating North Carolina public schools. Their delaying tactics worked for almost 20 years.
By 1968, though, the delaying tactics were failing. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited federal money from being spent on any public agencies that discriminated, and that meant schools. North Carolina responded with a “freedom of choice” option that allowed for voluntary integration. However, the Supreme Court found the tactic unconstitutional unless the program actually resulted in desegregation. That hadn’t happened so public schools were left with a choice between desegregating or foregoing federal money. Integration began in earnest across North Carolina with the beginning of the 1968 school year, though it would take another few years and another few court battles to complete.
On the political front, the modern Republican Party in North Carolina began to emerge. Pro-segregation white voters started abandoning the Democratic Party. In the presidential race, they supported Richard Nixon, with George Wallace stealing a healthy number of white votes. In the governor’s race, Democrat Bob Scott, who was lieutenant governor and son of governor Kerr Scott, defeated Republican Jim Gardner who ran on a segregationist platform and came closer than most people expected. In the US Senate race, incumbent Democrat Sam Ervin, who had pro-segregationist credentials, crushed his Republican opponent who ran as staunch segregationist.
Four years later, desegregation would be complete and the backlash against it would propel Republicans into the Governor’s Mansion and a US Senate seat for the first time in the 20thcentury. In 1968, at the time of King’s death, North Carolina was still in transition. His movement, though, set into motion the changes that restructured the political and social order of North Carolina and led to the state we know today.