Recently, Governor Pat McCrory has characterized those who have protested against the General Assembly’s destruction of basic citizenship rights in North Carolina as “outside agitators” who have conducted “unlawful demonstrations.” These demonstrations, he declared, should not be given “credence.”
But, sadly, it is the Governor’s criticism that should not be given credence. At the least, it would be helpful if the Governor would make himself more clear. First, virtually all those who have demonstrated — or been arrested — are and long-time citizens of North Carolina, many having lived here the majority of their lives. It would be good to know what makes them “outsiders.”
Second, it would be good to know who should have “credence.” A number of us wrote an op-ed piece recently that objected to how the actions of the North Carolina legislature — and the Governor — were reversing the history that North Carolina had struggled to achieve over the past half century as a forward looking state that can attract business investment because it protects civil rights, pays decent wages, and offers social welfare benefits that will attract new residents. Four of us signed that original op-ed, and although the Raleigh News and Observer would publish only two of our names, all four of us — William Leuchtenburg of UNC, Anne Firor Scott of Duke, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and myself — are noted historians. Between us we have written more than thirty books. We have lived in North Carolina for a total of more than 160 years. Each of us has been president of the Organization of American Historians, the leading professional organization in the United States of historians.
Governor McCrory, we are the “Establishment.” We are not “outside agitators.” We know how hard it is to have made our state as a progressive beacon for others to emulate, and it is precisely because we care so much about that history that we have chosen to demonstrate our concern about the actions of the Republican party in seeking to reverse that history: by suspending unemployment benefits to people entitled to them, denying women control of their reproductive processes, denying Medicaid treatment for 500,000 people in need of health care — even though it would not cost the state a cent for the first two years.
We are the true conservatives, seeking to hold on to what we have gained — not recklessly throw it away. That is why we also insist on retaining the right to vote — our most fundamental right — and not have it subject to being taken away by eliminating early voting, insisting on state I.D’s, or denying the right of students to vote on their college campuses rather than having to return home to vote.
Third, but hardly least, it would be good to know how Governor McCrory and his allies define “unlawful demonstrations.” Would that include the four Greensboro students who, 53 years ago, decided to insist on buying coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter after they purchased notebooks and toothpaste at other Woolworth counters? Would it include Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery to a white customer who got on the bus well after she did?
There is something profoundly wrong when 49.8 percent of the voters in the state (the number of people who voted for Democrats for the state legislature) have their rights and history trampled on. NC did not get to where it is by ignoring a commitment to the common good. Let’s return to who we are as a state, lest we be cast back to where we once were.
William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University and the former Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.