Under a moonless sky in the North Carolina mountains, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate named Terry Sanford stood on the steps of the Henderson County courthouse and made a proposal that seemed audacious for 1960. It had been a stinking hot May day, but the night was cooling rapidly, and 350 voters had shown up to hear this former FBI agent and World War II paratrooper describe his vision.
Sanford spoke slowly and deliberately. He warned that North Carolina’s economic growth was being stymied by a school system that ranked among the ten worst nationwide. “This is not good enough for my children or for yours,” he said that night. “We can do no less than to offer the individual child the educational opportunity to compete in today’s competitive world.” Better jobs required better schools, even if that meant raising taxes. “We cannot put our children in deep freeze,” waiting for the state’s tax base to grow, he said.
His detractors had been warning voters to guard their wallets from Sanford’s profligacy. “The primary need is not an outpouring of funds but a revival of learning,” said Sanford’s main opponent, a segregationist attorney named I. Beverly Lake. Another candidate, John Larkins, called Sanford’s education agenda “pure tommy-rot,” warning that it consisted of “cure-all programs, many of which have dubious merit and all of which are expensive.” Voters disagreed. That November they elected Sanford as their governor, then watched as he launched an ambitious campaign to modernize North Carolina.
During his single, constitutionally limited term, from 1961 through 1965, Sanford persuaded the legislature to levy a tax on food and medicine sales, then used the revenues to hire 2,800 new teachers and raise their pay by more than one-fifth. He helped consolidate the state’s university system and build a network of community colleges. He founded the North Carolina Fund, a five-year effort to eradicate poverty and discrimination. He took a measured approach to desegregation at a time when other Southern governors were calling for resistance. Many historians and policy experts say that Sanford—who later became Duke University’s president, serving from 1970 to 1985—helped set in motion a moderate bipartisan consensus that, over the past half century, has fostered a robust and stable business climate.
"Terry Sanford, as much as anybody, helped create the North Carolina brand. This was a clear marking point where North Carolina emerged on a different path than the rest of the South.”
That consensus held until 2010, when voters elected a Republican legislature committed to dramatically overhauling state policy. Then, in 2012, they elected former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory as governor, giving the GOP its first lock on state government since 1870. The new majority has made broad changes to tax policy, school funding, and social-welfare programs; loosened regulations on businesses; expanded gun owners’ rights; and passed new restrictions on voter registration and poll access.
“There’s almost nothing the legislature did that doesn’t have a precedent in some other state or country,” says John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, North Carolina’s most influential conservative think tank. “What was truly unprecedented was action on all of those issues in one year.” Hood calls the sweep “spectacular” and says it was “based on the best available empirical data about what makes state economies prosper.”
Critics don’t believe the shift has been data-driven at all and fear it will harm both commerce and social and economic equity. Throughout the 2013 session, North Carolinians descended on the Legislative Building in Raleigh for a series of exuberant and peaceful protests, known as Moral Mondays, which garnered international headlines and more than 900 arrests. Within the Duke community, where Sanford casts a long shadow fifteen years after his death, some faculty members and alumni describe the rightward turn as a deliberate dismantling of Sanford’s legacy.
“TERRY SANFORD'S a hero of mine, but he wouldn’t want me to tell you he was a saint,” says Pope “Mac” McCorkle III J.D. ’84, director of graduate studies for the Master of Public Policy program at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. At his idealistic best, Sanford envisioned a future in which the South would shed its reputation as a moral and economic drag on the country. But he also knew that winning elections required circumspection. During the 1960 Democratic primary battle against Lake—who had defended North Carolina’s single-race schools during the arguing of Brown v. Board of Education—Sanford offered himself as a more modulated supporter of segregation. “It was not a time to be a purist,” he told William Chafe, now the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history emeritus, around 1975. “I was trying to keep the banner flying, but I was trying to mute it enough so that I didn’t get slaughtered on pure principle.”
If Lake hovered to Sanford’s right, on his left were the civil rights activists who found their collective voice first at the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-ins in February 1960 and later at demonstrations throughout North Carolina. Sanford didn’t like the protests; he preferred that enlightened leaders like himself quietly enact reforms. But once he became governor, the protesters lent him political cover as he set out to tackle issues involving race, poverty, and education. “The Greensboro sit-ins liberated Terry Sanford,” says Chafe. “They changed the terrain. Moderation becomes different.”
Sanford knew there were still compromises to be made. Investing in public schools meant imposing the only tax to which North Carolina’s large landowners, high-wage earners, and tobacco executives would consent: a regressive sales tax on food and nonprescription medicine. But Sanford calculated that better education would help the poor more than the extra pennies on each food dollar would hurt them.
Sanford also wanted to address other root causes of the state's 37 percent poverty rate, from racial bias to low industrial wages. "He realized the poverty that he saw all around him, from them mountains to the coast, was going to hold the state back,” says Robert Korstad, the Kevin D. Gorter Professor of public policy and history at Duke. Sanford knew the legislature wouldn’t allocate a penny to these efforts. So he persuaded the Ford Foundation, along with the North Carolina-based Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations, to finance the North Carolina Fund, a precursor to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. (It received federal dollars, too.) Led by a board drawn from the state's bankers, industrialists, and educators, the fund was best known for sending racially mixed teams of volunteer college students into low-income communities. But it evolved to support efforts to organize poor North Carolinians, black and white, to advocate for themselves. And it spun off organizations that focused on job training, rural development, and affordable housing. "That's really the apogee of progressivism in North Carolina," says Korstad, who coauthored a book about the fund called To Right These Wrongs.
"TERRY SANFORD, as much as anybody, helped create the North Carolina brand,” says John Drescher M.P.P. ’88, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh and author of Triumph of Good Will, a chronicle of the 1960 gubernatorial race. “This was a clear marking point where North Carolina emerged on a different path than the rest of the South.” Sanford’s legacy endured most visibly in the area of public education. Republican Governor Jim Holshouser expanded kindergarten statewide during the 1970s. Democrat Jim Hunt began an early-childhood initiative called Smart Start in 1993. Eight years later, Democrat Mike Easley championed More at Four, an academic pre-kindergarten for at-risk children. Measured by teacher pay and student-teacher ratios, North Carolina stayed in the middle of the national pack but ahead of most of its Southern neighbors. Education fueled economic expansion—witness the tech and pharmaceutical sectors in Research Triangle Park and the banking industry in Charlotte—which in turn bolstered school spending without major tax hikes. “It was a virtuous circle,” says McCorkle.
North Carolina took a leadership role on other issues, too, ranging from coastal protection to fairness in criminal sentencing. And it expanded access to the polls through policies like early voting (with same-day registration) and preregistration for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.
This was hardly a straight-line path. Sanford’s agenda produced a backlash that elected a conservative successor, Democrat Dan Moore, as governor in 1964. And in federal elections, North Carolinians have wandered all over the ideological map, most notably sending one of the nation’s most rock-ribbed civil rights opponents, Republican Jesse Helms, to the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 2003.
“To suggest that a Southern state cannot make progress unless it has a moderate-to-liberal Democratic political culture would strike the rest of the South as parochial.”
“We can’t over-mythologize the moderate nature of North Carolina,” says the Reverend William Barber II M.Div. ’89, state president of the NAACP—noting for example, that five rural school districts had to sue the state in the 1990s for adequate funding. “And yet, when I’ve traveled south, people in Mississippi [and] Alabama would always say, ‘We’re looking to North Carolina,’ in terms of our universities and the Research Triangle Park and all of those things that would not be possible if North Carolina had not taken some deliberate steps away from the philosophy of the segregated South.”
Not everyone shares this narrative linking prosperity to moderate politics and activist government. “North Carolina’s economic history is not an uninterrupted climb until 2007, when suddenly we fell,” says Locke’s John Hood. He notes that the past half century has been filled with peaks and dips, which can be attributed to factors ranging from state highway spending to international manufacturing trends. Hood also says that Texas and Virginia have developed strong economies with more conservative governance. “To suggest that a Southern state cannot make progress unless it has a moderate-to-liberal Democratic political culture would strike the rest of the South as parochial,” he says. “They would pat you on the arm and say, ‘That’s very nice.’ ”
It took a confluence of factors to set the moderate consensus crumbling recently. North Carolina’s Democrats, who dominated politics for a century, fell into disarray. Governor Easley, House Speaker Jim Black, and Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps were all criminally convicted in separate corruption scandals. The party had lost considerable credibility by 2009, when Governor Bev Perdue discovered that the Great Recession had ground the “virtuous circle” to a halt. “When Bev got shellacked with a budget that said, just to keep pace, with some cuts, we’re going to have to raise taxes $1 billion, North Carolina was not ready for that,” McCorkle says.
Meanwhile, Democrats had done little to cultivate fresh leaders. “Terry always had young people around him, giving them influence, talking with them, working with them,” says Korstad. “The Democratic Party had lost its ability to perpetuate itself.”
At the same time, conservatives were creating a brain trust—groups like the John Locke Foundation, Civitas Institute, and North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law—funded in part by the family fortune of lawyer, retailer, and former state legislator Art Pope J.D. ’81, who is now state budget director. “[We were] building out a policy infrastructure in response to what the left had already done with greater amounts of money and more organizations,” says Hood. (Indeed, Sanford’s North Carolina Fund helped turn the Reynolds foundations into major funders of social-justice and community-development organizations.)
In 2010, this conservative infrastructure was able to seize on the public’s economic despair and diminished faith in its leaders. “The opportunity was created by events,” Hood says. “But the ability to respond was absolutely the result of years of investment and years of planning.”
THE NEW LEGISLATURE'S most direct confrontation with the Sanford legacy came in the area of K-12 school funding. Its $7.868 billion appropriation for 2013-14 represents a $117 million cut from the “base budget,” which is defined as what’s “necessary to continue the current level of services.” (Budget director Pope disputes that funding was cut, saying the base budget is “based on preliminary information and arcane budget rules.”) The legislature reduced funding for teacher assistants by 20 percent and eliminated bonuses for future teachers with master’s degrees. The Locke Foundation has opposed both of these budget items, saying they don’t demonstrably boost student achievement.
The new budget also created a voucher system for low-income families to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. “Too many minority children are lagging academically,” wrote Bob Luebke, senior policy analyst with the Civitas Institute, in a June 2013 column. “Many of these children are trapped in schools that are struggling or failing or don’t fit their needs.” Vouchers, he wrote, provide families “the ability to choose the type of school that is best for their child.”
Critics put a harsher spin on the $10 million voucher program. “They are paying people to leave the public schools,” says historian Tim Tyson Ph.D. ’94, senior research scholar at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. If Sanford were alive today, “he would be cutting them a new”—Tyson pauses here—“angle of vision. He would be serving it up red hot.”
The two sides disagree on what the budget will mean for the number of teachers in North Carolina classrooms. Pope says the final figures will not come out until February, but that “based on our estimates, there is sufficient budgeting to hire more teachers per student this year than last.” The state Department of Public Instruction, by contrast, estimates that 5,200 positions will be lost because the legislature altered the student-teacher ratio used for hiring. “We have started a spiral where we are slowly starving our public schools,” State Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, told a television reporter in August.
The legislature also cut unemployment insurance; rejected a federally funded Medicare expansion; repealed the Racial Justice Act, which gives relief to death-row inmates who can prove that race influenced their prosecutions; passed abortion restrictions that will limit insurance coverage for some women and tighten licensure requirements for clinics; and expanded the venues where permit holders can carry concealed weapons, including playgrounds and funeral processions. It lowered the corporate income-tax rate and let expire the earned-income credit for low-paid workers.
Few measures stirred more discussion than the one dialing back North Carolina’s expansive voting policies. The new law reduces the number of early-voting days, requires voters to show government-issued IDs at the polls (college IDs don’t count), ends same-day registration and youth pre-registration, makes it easier to challenge a voter’s eligibility, and bans local election boards from extending polling hours because of extraordinary circumstances, like long lines. Defenders call the law, especially its photo-ID provision, an anti-fraud measure; the State Board of Elections documented two cases of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2012. “Part of the problem is it’s hard to detect voter fraud when there’s such loose standards,” says Pope.
Opponents call the fraud argument a smokescreen, arguing that the law is intended to reduce turnout among more liberal constituencies. Take early voting, for example. “Black American churches, where I’m from in North Carolina, during election season we have an abbreviated Sunday service and have buses that transport folks who otherwise would not have transportation to the polls,” says Jay Pearson, assistant professor of public policy at Duke. Extended voting also benefits workers with inflexible schedules. Curtail the number of days that the polls are open, he says, and “you have an institutionalized mechanism that has been altered, systematically disenfranchising working-class, blue-collar folks.”
Pearson argues that, as governor, Sanford recognized that poverty stemmed from “structural inequality,” rather than individual failings and understood how the machinery of government could be mobilized to give poor people power. The new majority, he says, understands how the machinery of government can be used to take that power away.
“I think Terry would probably try to rally his network of business leaders and political elites and create some kind of official opposition. The Democrats have not known what the hell to do. Instead, those of us who are protesting and getting arrested are taking the place of what Terry would have done."
HISTORIAN CHAFE, who was arrested during a Moral Monday demonstration in May, sees a connection between Sanford’s governorship and the 2013 protests. “How would Terry handle it?” he asks of the rightward shift. “I think Terry would probably try to rally his network of business leaders and political elites and create some kind of official opposition. The Democrats have not known what the hell to do. Instead, those of us who are protesting and getting arrested are taking the place of what Terry would have done.”
“But the fact that these demonstrations are respectful and controlled and ‘moderate’ gives you some sense that that Sanford tradition is still in place,” Chafe adds. “People are not fighting the police. They are not aggressively transgressing the boundaries that have been established. These are polite protests.”
Like Chafe, others in the Duke community who knew Sanford wonder how he would have responded to a wholesale undoing of his policies. McCorkle, who worked closely with Sanford after graduating from law school, believes the former governor would have invested his energy developing new leaders to recapture power.
“It would be very clear to him: Go young, and go diverse,” McCorkle says. “He would be counseling people: Step aside. Be the elder statesmen. But bring in the young. They’re going to make mistakes, but they’re the future.”
And Tyson, who also got arrested during a Moral Monday protest, believes Sanford would reach out to the twenty-first-century demonstrators, just as he did in the 1960s to civil rights activists like North Carolina A&T student-body president Jesse Jackson. “Sanford would have immediately sent out trays of sandwiches and urns of coffee, and maybe deviled eggs—there would be a little Southern touch to it—and said, ‘Come, let us reason together,’ ” Tyson says. “Without clogging the engine of the movement, he would have tried to get it tied to a crankshaft that was going to do something positive and powerful.”
During the 1960s, protesters made Sanford uneasy. But Tyson believes the former governor would have appreciated today’s racially diverse expressions of outrage. “We are the embodiment of the values he tried to advance in this state,” the historian says. “I think he would say, ‘At long last. At long last. My people.’ ”
— Yeoman is a journalist based in Durham. His recent work has been published in OnEarth, Audubon, The American Prospect, Parade and The Saturday Evening Post.