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Gary Pearce: How would Terry Sanford handle modern-day times?

By Gary Pearce

North Carolina has been through tense, racially troubled times before. What happened 60 years ago should give us hope.

Racism is bad now. It was even more pervasive then.

But North Carolina had a governor, Terry Sanford, who stood up against racial discrimination when other southern governors were standing in schoolhouse doors to keep out black students.

Sanford was elected in 1960. That February, the sit-in movement had begun in Greensboro. The civil rights movement was on the rise, and so was the virulent, violent resistance of whites in the South.

In the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered then in a heavily Democratic state, Sanford defeated I. Beverly Lake, an avowed segregationist. Lake had come to political fame fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against school segregation. He said North Carolina should shut down public schools before integrating them.

Sanford had to thread a political needle; most white North Carolinians opposed desegregation. But he declared that the state should obey the law of the land.

As Governor, he went farther. He sent his son and daughter to an integrated Raleigh elementary school. It was token integration; there was one black student, Bill Campbell, who later became mayor of Atlanta. But Sanford’s decision was symbolic.

He prodded business and municipal leaders to desegregate cafeterias, theaters and other businesses. He desegregated state parks. And he spoke up.

In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated governor of Alabama, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Governor Sanford spoke four days later to the North Carolina Press Association — knowing he would get widespread news coverage:

“The time has come for American citizens…to quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to higher standards for himself and all men,” he said. “We can do this. We should do this ….We will do it because it is honest and fair for us to give all men and women their best chance in life.”

His language in 1963 – “Negro” and “all men” – may be jarring today. It was revolutionary then. A black newspaper in Los Angeles headlined: “NC Governor (That’s Right!) Urges Equality.”

Sanford never called out the National Guard, though he sometimes had to send in State Troopers to keep peace. He didn’t feel a need to prove his toughness. He had been an Army paratrooper in World War II. He fought in Europe, was wounded and decorated for bravery.

His instinct wasn’t to crack down; it was to sit down with protesters and listen to them. He created a Good Neighbor Council where blacks and whites could talk together and work together.

That was always his way. He became President of Duke University in 1970, just as Vietnam War protests were erupting. Other college presidents called in police and shut down campuses. Sanford invited protesters into his office and heard them out.

Early in his presidency, more than a thousand students rallied and declared they were going to take over the Administration Building. Sanford joined the crowd. “Take me with you,” he said. “I’ve been trying to occupy it for a month.”

Sanford had an optimistic faith in young people. He’d be gratified today to see so many young people of all races joining protests against racism and police brutality. Photos from the early 1960s usually show white teenagers jeering, shouting and spitting at black protesters.

He’d also be proud of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Sanford turned North Carolina in a new direction.

Today, we are called again to overcome hate, bigotry and injustice. Let’s ask ourselves: What would Terry do?

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and adviser to Governor Jim Hunt. He blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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