That rural North Carolina voted Democratic for much of the twentieth century was of little import; after all, the Democrats had all but extinguished party competition at the dawn of the 1900s. But the type of Democrat they voted for would raise eyebrows in today’s climate. While right-wing politicians like Furnifold Simmons and Willis Smith harvested support from die-hard white supremacists, a contrary tradition held sway in parts of the countryside. It was a rural progressivism.
One of the most intriguing progressives to come out of rural North Carolina was not actually a Democrat. Marion Butler, a Sampson County lawyer and champion of the poor agrarian, was the only member of the Populist Party ever elected to the Senate from the American South. While not progressive on racial issues, he did fight against the White Supremacy Campaign in which Democrats Simmons and Charles Aycock bloodily restored the hegemony of white people and the white people’s party. Butler left the state in disgust.
Marion Butler’s base was in his native eastern North Carolina. “Down East,” as North Carolinians still call the region, would serve as the political base of rural progressivism for much of the Solid South era. In the Great Depression, facing hardship so extreme some people resorted to eating dandelions, eastern North Carolina voters supported progressive Lieutenant Governor Richard Fountain over the establishment choice, J.C.B. Ehreinghaus. After World War II, the people who lived along the creeks and rivers cutting through the East would form the backbone of Governor Kerr Scott’s populist coalition.
The game was up for rural progressivism in 1950 when Scott appointed UNC President Frank Porter Graham to the United States Senate . Graham was the South’s leading liberal, and his racial progressivism terrified white people down east, the region with the largest Black population where white racial paranoia was most acute. Having boosted Kerr Scott into the governor’s mansion, eastern North Carolina voters dropped the hammer on Scott’s chosen Senator.
Since the race-soaked campaign of 1950, rural North Carolina has voted for one conservative after another. Eastern North Carolina country people supported Jesse Helms with such vigor that they inspired a neologism: Jessecrat. The East and the small mill towns of the textile belt are now some of the most Republican–and conservative–parts of the state. Mountain districts that once elected progressive Republicans are rock-solid for Trump and Trumpism. At this point, the idea of a united populist coalition extending into struggling communities across the state seems like a fond and unlikely dream.
What happened here is what has happened across the South. White voters–not only in rural areas but with particular potency there–have retreated to conservatism as a shield against changes they detest. When white supremacy was secure, white Southerners were willing to vote their economic interests. With Anglo-Saxon dominance under attack from the Civil Rights movement and later activism, whites prioritized a larger self-interest: that as one white-supremacist paper put in during North Carolina’s White Supremacy Campaign, “The Whites Shall Rule.”
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.