Gary Pearce: Will voting rights battle re-emerge in North Carolina?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 31, 2021

By Gary Pearce

For 150 years, North Carolina has been a battleground over Black citizens’ voting rights. Get ready for another battle.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a warning this month: “I expect Republican leadership in our North Carolina legislature to follow a lot of other state legislatures in using this ‘big lie’ of voter fraud as an excuse for laws that suppress the vote. Let’s just get real about it: These laws are intended to discourage people from voting.”

Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills to suppress voting. Georgia just passed one that The New York Times says will have “an outsize impact on Black voters.”

Reporters in Raleigh have speculated that similar bills will be introduced this year and rushed through the legislature to Governor Cooper’s desk.

Our state has been here before. Resistance began as soon as the Fifteenth Amendment gave Blacks the right to vote after the Civil War.

Blacks helped elect Gov. William W. Holden, a Republican, in 1868. In 1870, the Ku Klux Klan used murder and intimidation to suppress Republican votes. Democrats regained control of the legislature. They impeached Holden and removed him from office.

Despite Jim Crow laws and the Klan, Blacks continued to hold elected office in North Carolina during the 19th Century. The last to serve in Congress was George Henry White (1897-1901).

Then white supremacists took over. In 1898, white mobs murdered Black citizens and overthrew the legally elected government of Wilmington. The Democratic Party and The News & Observer, working together, imposed ruthless voter-suppression laws that disenfranchised Blacks for decades.

In the 1960s, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act despite filibusters by Southern Senators, including North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, a Democrat.

The two parties then reversed roles on race. The Democratic Party, once the party of white supremacy, embraced civil rights. Southern whites embraced the Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln. The News & Observer became a strong voice for civil rights and racial equality.

Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, elected in 1972, took up the Southern resistance banner. He had won fame fulminating on WRAL-TV against the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held his seat for 30 years; he never changed his views on race.

The U.S. Justice Department accused Helms’ 1990 campaign – against a Black opponent, Harvey Gantt – of intimidating Black voters. The campaign sent 125,000 postcards, mostly to Black voters, falsely claiming they were not eligible and could be prosecuted for voter fraud. Helms’ campaign later signed a consent decree to settle the complaint.

A former Democrat, Helms had been involved in one of the most racist campaigns in North Carolina’s history, Willis Smith’s victory over Frank Porter Graham in the 1950 Senate Democratic primary. Smith’s campaign passed out flyers that said: “White People Wake Up.”

Despite Helms, North Carolina earned a reputation in the last decades of the 20th Century as a progressive state on racial issues.

Then, in 2010 – the first midterm after the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president – Republicans won majorities in the state House and Senate.

In 2013, they passed an election law that the Brennan Center for Justice called “possibly the most restrictive” in the nation. It required a photo ID, curtailed early voting, ended same-day registration and ended provisional voting.

A federal court said the law “disproportionately affected” Black voters, targeting them “with almost surgical precision.” Lawsuits tied up many of the law’s provisions.

Now – in the wake of the 2020 election and Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud – North Carolina may be in for another battle.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at