Updated: May 7, 2022
Maybe it could be considered progress that the way White people treated Black people and other races over the past 400 years of history in America is now considered so shameful that many White people don’t want their children to learn about it.
That’s one explanation for the rash of states, including North Carolina, that have tried to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. For those who don’t already know, critical race theory focuses on the role of structural racism in society and how the law creates and facilitates racial inequities.
It’s about injustices like those meticulously researched and documented in Geeta Kapur’s book “To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Raci
al Equality at the Nation’s Oldest Public University.” Kapur received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She chronicles the struggle by Black North Carolinians for access to the state’s premier public institution of higher learning from the days when slaves made the bricks to build university buildings and a slave named Wilson Caldwell hauled water in buckets from the old well to students for their morning ablutions, through the bitter fight by state lawmakers and university officials to exclude Black students from the pharmacy school in the 1930s and the law school in the 1940s.
It’s a fight that continued in 1955, when the University of North Carolina was the first public university sued by NAACP lawyers following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that ended school segregation. The lawsuit asked the courts to declare unconstitutional and void a 1951 resolution by trustees that banned Black students from graduate and professional programs unless no Black university in the state offered them and a 1955 resolution that banned all Black undergraduates from attending UNC.
The state appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided and even if it wasn’t, it didn’t apply to institutions of higher learning. It was a losing fight and state lawmakers and university trustees knew it. UNC would be integrated, albeit grudgingly. But, Kapur points out, Black students still could not eat in the restaurants along Franklin Street and Jesse Helms, later elected a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, called them “Nigras” during his daily commentary on WRAL-TV and said they were trying to take over the university.
Critical race theory is about tactics like those used by North Carolina Democrats in 1898 to drive a wedge between rural White populists called Fusionists and Black Republicans who had united to oust the Democrats from power. The Democrats had regained power after federal troops withdrew in 1876, ending the period of Reconstruction. Rural White farmers and other populists, fed up with Democrats opposition to regulating railroad rates, restricting working hours and expanding public education, had joined forces with Black voters to defeat them in 1894.
In “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics,” Rob Christensen , who covered state politics for the Raleigh News and Observer for 35 years, tells how a Fusion-dominated legislature in 1895 instituted a series of reforms that included a 6 percent interest ceiling on loans, higher taxes on railroads and other businesses and increased spending on education. They also made North Carolina election laws the fairest in the South.
To regain control, Democrats’ plan was simple – divide and conquer. Promising not to raise corporate taxes, the party raised money from bankers, railroad executives, lawyers and manufacturers for a White supremacy campaign. With support from the state’s Democratic-leaning newspapers, including the Raleigh News and Observer, that ran cartoons of scenes like a White man being crushed under the foot of a Black man, and from a vigilante organization called the Red Shirts that roamed the state intimidating Black voters, the Democrats regained power.
It’s a shameful legacy. But if there is shame, it has failed to change behavior.
A major party realignment took place in the South after Democrats spearheaded the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southern Democrats, like South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond, who had opposed the legislation, switched parties. So did Jesse Helms. You can see their influence on the Republican Party today in efforts at voter suppression and in gerrymandered districts that disenfranchise Black voters, and in ludicrous attempts to prevent educators from teaching an accurate history of our nation.
In the fall of 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill passed by the GOP-dominated General Assembly veiled in language about “the equality and rights of all persons” that was, in fact, an attempt to obstruct teaching about the role slavery and racism have played in North Carolina’s and nation’s history. Cooper also vetoed a bill that would have kept some mail-in ballots from being counted. Earlier this month the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned GOP-drawn redistricting plans, declaring them unconstitutional gerrymandering.
But these actions don’t mean these issues are settled. It’s hard to relinquish the version of history most of us learned in school — the story of noble founders who stood up to tyranny and created a virtuous democracy governed by the rule of law, a country that would become the greatest nation on earth — for something more honest and nuanced. It’s even harder to share power willingly.
But, as the late Sen. Bob Dole said, there can be no first-class democracy that treats people like second-class citizens. And there can be no first-class democracy without an honest examination of, and reckoning with, its history.
The Europeans who came to the America committed atrocities against indigenous people and the enslaved Africans they brought here, no one can deny that. The result has been generations of poverty and struggle on the part of those they conquered and displaced or enslaved.
They also set in motion the instrument for creating the equality they denied these same peoples, espousing the ideals of freedom and democratic rule. Those White men who gathered in Philadelphia in the late 1700s signed the Declaration of Independence declaring, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” That flawed people can do great things should come as no surprise. We are all flawed. We can look back now and view that document with irony, since many of those who signed it were slaveholders, including the primary author Thomas Jefferson.
Or we can look back and recognize that this was humankind, envisioning a path out of tribalism, setting a course toward a society where every individual, of whatever race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, would be free to pursue his or her own destiny and strive to reach his or her own potential. It’s a struggle for the ages, not one that can be perfected in a lifetime. Only if our history is taught truthfully and in context can we hope to someday live into that dream.
Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.