North Carolina’s last liberal

Published 2:50 am Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What was the greatest political upset in North Carolina political history?

Old timers will tell you that it was Kerr Scott’s victory in the Democratic primary for governor in 1948. Scott, a dairy farmer from Alamance County, beat the favored candidate of the conservative wing of the party.

Once in office, he adopted a liberal program of road paving, public school improvement, and expansion of government services. Hard-working and hardheaded, plain and direct spoken, he appointed women and African Americans to government positions. He disregarded criticism of his actions.

Future governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt were inspired by his success. Hunt says, “If not for Kerr Scott I would never have run for Governor. My family viewed Scott as our political savior. … He improved our roads, our schools, and our healthcare. He was our champion, and I hoped in my political career to be like him.”

But Kerr Scott was complicated. He was probably the last successful North Carolina politician to embrace the term “liberal.” His commitment to common people, fair and equal treatment for African Americans, skepticism and antagonism towards banks, utilities and big business, and a pro-labor platform earned him a liberal reputation that was noted and praised in the national media.

On the other hand, he was a sincere advocate for segregation in the public schools. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954, he joined with other southerners in Congress to fight against civil rights legislation. He signed the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto, which responded to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring the elimination of school segregation by urging  “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”

Anyone who wants to master North Carolina political history must try to figure out Kerr Scott and understand how in his day he, and others who lived in those times, could be both a liberal and a segregationist. Soon we will have a book that will help us. “The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott: The Squire from Haw River” by Julian Pleasants is scheduled for publication later this month.

Pleasants’ experience and professional interests made him an ideal choice to tell the Kerr Scott story. A native North Carolinian who returned here after a distinguished career as a professor of history at the University of Florida, he is the author or co-author of two books about North Carolina political figures during the period, “Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina” and “Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds.”

Kerr Scott was a major actor in the Frank Graham-Willis Smith race that still defines North Carolina political traditions. Scott appointed Graham, the popular and liberal president of UNC, to the U.S. Senate. Scott was active in Graham’s effort to retain his Senate seat. When Graham lost to conservative Willis Smith, Scott took the loss harder than Graham. He resolved to run against Smith in 1954 to avenge Graham’s loss and reassert the power of the liberal wing of the party. When Smith died in office and Gov. William Umstead appointed Alton Lennon, a conservative, to the seat, Scott ran against him.

When asked how he would defend himself and overcome the kind of racist campaigning that Frank Graham’s opponents used effectively in the Graham-Smith contest, Scott said, “I’ll handle it, son. I’m not as good a Christian as Frank Porter Graham.”

With the help of his campaign manager, Terry Sanford, Scott beat the conservatives again. He died in office in 1958, leaving Sanford to pick up the mantle as the champion of the Scott political tradition in his campaign for governor in 1960.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs on UNC-TV.