What The Hell Is Happening In North Carolina?
A look at North Carolina’s political turmoil — and the long, bloody road to this moment
“I believe the turmoil we are witnessing around us today is in fact the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction.”
— Rev. William J. Barber II
Roy Cooper became the 75th Governor of North Carolina on January 1st. Cooper’s ascension to the governorship has been embroiled in controversy since his election victory in November. States Republicans made headlines across the United States — and around the world — when they staged a multi-faceted attack on both the election results and the governor’s office itself. Shock was evident in most of the press coverage, but, in recent years, subverting democracy has become the state GOP’s standard operating procedure. And, in North Carolina, the battle for basic democratic rights has been bloody and extraordinarily long.
The controversy that reached its peak in what many outlets dubbed a “legislative coup” began election night on November 8. Roy Cooper won the election but his opponent, incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, refused to concede. McCrory did not admit defeat until December 5.
Then, on December 14, Republican leaders launched their now infamous “legislative coup” — a surprise “special session” of North Carolina’s legislature aimed at stripping powers from the governorship.
The New York Times editorial board echoed the tone of most of the press coverage when it called the Republicans’ moves a “Brazen Power Grab.” The Wall Street Journal was more subdued. It claimed that although North Carolina’s GOP seemed “ham-handed” and “vindictive,” the media was overreacting to what it described as “minor changes to executive power.”
Whatever you call it — a “legislative coup,” a “power grab,” or “ham-handed” but “minor” changes — something big did go down in North Carolina. At least, that’s what many people who live in North Carolina think. Hundreds protested and, over a two day period, at least 56 people (including a journalist) were arrested at the state Legislative Building.
At this time of year, the Legislature is usually closed, and lawmakers are on winter break, but McCrory called them back to the capital to pass a disaster relief package for Hurricane Matthew victims. However, after passing the disaster relief measures, Republicans opened a new session with “ no declared agenda” and began rushing through a number of bills completely unrelated to disaster relief.
Governor Cooper challenged the constitutionality of the laws in court. On December 30, a judge temporarily blocked some of the changes. The judge ruled that the law in question should not come into force until it could be studied more closely, because he believed it was a potential risk to free and fair elections.
North Carolina’s “legislative coup”
The two bills that generated the most anger and press coverage are Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 17. The bills make numerous changes to North Carolina’s government. Many of the changes directly undermine the Governor’s power. Some target other (Democrat-controlled) governmental branches.
Changes to the Governor’s power:
Changes not directly effecting the Governor:
Clearly these measures are more than “minor changes to executive power” but “legislative coup” is not a useful description of what is happening in North Carolina, either. The GOP-controlled legislature’s moves to reduce the power of the governorship — and other Democratic controlled offices — is both a shameless attempt to cling to power despite electoral defeat and a continuation of a sophisticated GOP campaign to rig North Carolinian democracy in their favor.
The legislative moves come hot on the heels of the protracted gubernatorial election campaign. For almost a month, McCrory refused to concede to Cooper who won the tight contest by over 10,000 votes. McCrory alleged voter fraud, demanded recounts, and unsuccessfully challenged the results in court.
Now that the Republican Party realizes they cannot overturn the election results, they are simply stripping power from the offices and government branches they just lost and empowering the offices they still control. For example, many of the education-related powers stripped from the Governor are being transferred to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, an office which (big surprise) was won by a Republican. Although many changes rushed through the special session are being spun as a reform to decentralize power, the Superintendent is also being granted powers that previously belonged to the state’s 13 member Board of Education.
Needless to say, dirty politics is not new to North Carolina. Some Republicans have not denied that their recent actions are a partisan power grab. Instead, they have defended themselves by pointing out that Democrats did similar things in the 1980s. However, it is Republicans who have taken things to new lows in recent years. Their latest moves are part of a pattern of behavior involving voter suppression and gerrymandering aimed at entrenching Republican power over the state.
North Carolina’s voter suppression laws target “African Americans with almost surgical precision”
In July, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s “voter ID” law, calling it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” The court ruled that white Republican legislators had created a voter suppression regime that targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Republicans defended the law as a necessary measure to fight voter fraud. There is no proof that voter fraud is a significant problem in North Carolina (yes, “voter fraud” seems to be the catchall excuse for North Carolina Republicans whether they’re a defeated governor refusing to admit defeat or a lawmaker justifying racist voter suppression).
Although some have argued that Republicans did not have racist intentions when they drafted the law, as civil rights leader Rev. William J. Barber, II points out, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of their intentions, the law disproportionately disenfranchises black voters.
“People keep asking, ‘When they passed this law, were they racist in their heart?’ It doesn’t matter. You look at the heart of their policies. If I tell you this law is going to affect black people more than anyone else, and you still go ahead and do it, you yourself are making clear exactly what you are.”
— Rev. William J. Barber II, president of North Carolina’s NAACP
And it is highly likely that Republican lawmakers did, indeed, intentionally suppress the black vote. Released email correspondence between Republicans and government officials reveals that they were fully aware of the discriminatory consequences of their so-called voter ID law. And it seems likely that far from being an unforeseen development, discrimination was the goal all along. The evidence is damning.
William Wan wrote a detailed overview of the law’s creation for the The Washington Post that make the GOP’s intentions painfully clear. Email excerpts from Wan’s piece show the questions Republicans were asking in the lead-up to introducing the bill in the legislature:
A legislature staffer asked, “Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?”
A GOP legislator asked for voter data including how many people voted outside their precinct and also asked “Is there no category for ‘Hispanic’ voter?”
An aide for the GOP House speaker asked for “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”
After requesting this information, Republicans crafted a “voter ID” law that cut a week of early voting, eliminated out of precinct voting, and required voters to show photo IDs such as driver’s licenses. The data they analyzed showed that these changes would disproportionately hurt black voters and other people of color. For example, Wan reports that “state researchers told GOP legislators that between 318,643 and 612,955 registered voters appeared to lack [driver’s licenses]” and “the percentage of black people at risk of losing their vote under the new law was much higher than that of whites.”
When the GOP introduced the bill in the legislature, Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein made sure the GOP couldn’t feign ignorance. Stein publicly testified that the data indicated that the changes would disenfranchise many voters — specifically black, minority, and young voters. But the Republicans refused to back-down. Even after the federal appeals court struck down the law — and detailed how the law was discriminatory in a 83-page ruling — the Republicans were undeterred. Governor McCrory filed an emergency petition to restore the law but the US Supreme Court denied his request. Despite this, the NC GOP directer instructed NC Republican-controlled county election boards to “make party line changes to early voting.” And because the courts had not outlined specifically how early voting should be reinstated, the GOP was able to restrict voter access with impunity.
The “voter ID” legislation is not the only time NC Republicans ran afoul of the law in 2016. Twice they were ordered to redraw electoral district boundaries because courts ruled that they were “racially gerrymandered.” In other words, the boundaries were drawn to dilute black voters’ power. Two of North Carolina’s congressional districts and 28 state legislative districts were deemed unconstitutional because of this.
This is how The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II described the two illegal congressional districts:
The First Congressional District was a behemoth, connecting a dozen counties and crossing the entire length of the mostly-black portion of the coastal plain, with a single feeler reaching down into Little Washington and New Bern like a creeper vine. The Twelfth Congressional District flowed like a ribbon of a river along a 100-mile stretch roughly coterminous with the I-85 corridor from Charlotte to Greensboro, with tributaries only branching off in search of nearby black neighborhoods.
The congressional districts were redrawn before this year’s election. The 28 legislative districts were not redrawn, however, because the court ruling on them came too close to election day. Instead, special elections will be held in redrawn districts next year.
In light of all this, Republican moves against Governor-elect Cooper seem even more illegitimate. Not only are GOP lawmakers stripping Cooper’s powers in brazen disregard of the electorate's will, they are able to do this in part because of a meticulous, illegal voter suppression campaign designed to entrench their own power. And 28 of the lawmakers are only in the legislature because they won elections in illegal districts, gerrymandered for their benefit.
North Carolina’s long history of white supremacy includes a real coup d’état that killed people
Some commentators have called recent developments in North Carolina “shocking” but the state has a long tradition of antidemocratic and racist politics. It has also been suggested that North Carolina is a microcosm of the growing divisiveness and subversion of democratic norms in Trump’s America (a view perhaps best articulated by The Nation’s Ari Berman). Although North Carolina is somewhat indicative of the national political climate — and the state has been a focus of the GOP’s national strategy — a short review of North Carolina’s political history shows that the current crisis is the latest (and not a particularly shocking) chapter in a centuries-long struggle for civil and democratic rights in the state. North Carolina’s history both contextualizes recent events and provides disturbing parallels to today’s politics at both the state and national level.
Following the Civil War, Congress passed the Reconstruction Amendments aimed at increasing equality and integrating former slaves into the political system. Black people and white supporters of black rights won political office in North Carolina and throughout the South. In 1894, Fusionists — a biracial coalition of liberal Republicans and agrarian Populists — gained control of North Carolina’s legislature. They enacted protections for black voting rights. In the next election, black voter turnout reached 87%.
In an attempt to regain power and undo racial progress, Democrats ran on a “White Supremacy Campaign” that promised to “redeem” the South. They fearmongered about “Negro rule” and “domination,” including the supposed epidemic of black men raping white women.
Newkirk sees a connection between Democratic promise to “redeem” the South and Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” (and some Trump supporters borrowed the Redeemers’ rhetoric directly) Implicit in both messages is the need to save the nation from ominous threats. In 1890s North Carolina, its Negro rapists. In 2010s America, its Mexican rapists. The Redeemers weren’t just concerned about “Negros.” Like Trump, they warned about an influx of suspicious immigrants.
“The obvious test for intelligence was reading and writing. It would exclude all those immigrants that were coming into our country, at the rate of a million a year, until they had qualified themselves, and it would exclude a large number of ignorant and stupid Negroes until they had qualified themselves."
— George Rountree, a Redeemer justifying Jim Crow voting restrictions in the late 1890s.
The Democratic Redeemers’ electoral strategy was not limited to racist rhetoric and fearmongering. They also used intimidation and physical violence. Armed white supremacist gangs roamed the streets to intimidate blacks voters. Redshirts, the Democratic Party’s paramilitary wing, played a major role in North Carolina’s elections in the late 1890s. By this time they were already notorious throughout the South for their terrorism and intimidation which was likely their most effective tactic. They had been active in the 1876 South Carolina election, in which approximately 150 black people were murdered. In the 1898 North Carolina election campaign, armed Redshirts disrupted non-Democratic party political meetings and marched through black neighborhoods on horseback. On election day, Redshirts patrolled voting precincts. They kept many black and Republican voters from the polls and Democrats regained control of the state legislature.
Although the Redshirts’ 1898 terror campaign helped Democrats win at almost every level of government, in the black-majority city of Wilmington, a biracial Fusion coalition won municipal council. On November 10, Alfred Moore Waddell, a local Democrat and former Confederate colonel, launched what would become known as the Wilmington insurrection — the only coup d’état in US history. First, Waddell led approximately 500 white supremacists to the headquarters of the African American-owned newspaper the Daily Record. The mob set the building on fire. In the ensuing riot, between 14 and 90 blacks were killed (the exact number is not known). Many blacks fled their homes — and some never returned. Waddell and his men forced the elected city government to resign at gunpoint, and Waddell ruled as mayor for the next seven years.
Redshirts repeated their repressive tactics in 1900 — and the Democrats completed their aggressive takeover of North Carolina’s government by winning the governorship.
This was the beginning of decades of whites-only rule in North Carolina. Representative George Henry White eulogized the temporary end of black political representation in his farewell speech to Congress in 1901.
“This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people — rising people, full of potential force.”
— George Henry White, the last black southern Congressman before the Jim Crow era
The 1900 amendments to North Carolina’s constitution aimed at disenfranchising black voters were so successful that George Henry White — reelected for the final time in 1898 — was the state’s last black Congress member until 1992.
The rise and fall of the Second Reconstruction
North Carolina’s white supremacist Jim Crow regime did not become displaced until the rise of the Second Reconstruction — more commonly called the Civil Right Movement — in the 1960s. Civil rights activists helped the number of black people registered to vote in North Carolina reach 36% in 1963. Although dismal in comparison to the higher than 80% achieved in the First Reconstruction era, this number was a major improvement over the Jim Crow era; in 1948, only 15% of North Carolina’s black voters were registered.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, outlawing many Jim Crow polices that suppressed black voter turnout. After the VRA’s enactment, North Carolina’s black voter registration reached 50%. In 1975, the VRA was amended to permanently ban literacy tests.
Section 5 of the VRA has been especially crucial to securing voting rights in North Carolina. Section 5 requires that state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination get approval from the federal government before making any changes to voting laws. Between 1982 and 2005, the Justice Department directly blocked at least ten North Carolina electoral reform proposals that would have had a discriminatory impact on minority voters. A study of the voting rights in the state since 1982, concluded that Section 5 also made “local jurisdictions more sensitive to the impact of proposed changes on minority voters.”
Despite the reforms and federally-enforced bans on discrimination, black electoral participation remained relatively low. The number of black people registered to vote in 1990 was 63%. This was due in large part to the other unresolved legacy of Jim Crow — blacks’ socioeconomic impoverishment relative to whites. Because black people are more likely to be poor, they are more likely to experience barriers that hinder their ability to vote. For example, tight work schedules or limited access to transportation makes voting more difficult. Another major structural problem is that in minority areas polling stations are less common, under-staffed and underfunded compared to white areas.
In the 1990s, under pressure from civil rights activists, North Carolina politicians became more aware of these problems. With bi-partisan support, North Carolina’s legislature began reforms to make voting easier for poor people in the state. By 1999, early voting was implemented across the state.
The voting-rights reforms continued into the new millennium. In 2007, the William J. Barber II-led “Moral Movement” coalition campaigned for same-day voter registration. In the legislature, Democratic lawmaker Deborah Ross advocated for the reform and introduced a bill to implement it. The Democratic legislative leadership agreed to support the bill — and Democratic Governor Mike Easley signed it into law. In a preview of things to come, Republicans opposed the new law.
In the 2008 presidential election, with both Jim Crow restrictions and many structural barriers eliminated, the percentage of registered black voters who cast a ballet outpaced white voters for the first time in North Carolina history. This was a major factor in Barrack Obama winning North Carolina. The same pattern was repeated in 2012, although it was not enough for Obama to retain the state.
In 2010, Republicans won majority control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1896. Pat McCrory’s victory in the 2012 gubernatorial election made him only the third Republican governor in the last 100 years. In an ironic historical twist, the end of the Democrats’ century-long dominance of North Carolina, which was established with the help of white supremacist terrorism, also marked the end of 45 years of slow but steady progress for state’s black citizens.
This seemingly unlikely development was made possible due to the two parties’ role reversal on race in the 1960s. The Democrats’ national leadership turned away from their old alliance with white supremacy in favor of newly enfranchised black and minority voters. The Republicans, who had already shifted away from their abolitionist roots, saw an opportunity in disillusioned white Southern Democrats. 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater campaigned against the Civil Rights Act. Although Goldwater did not win North Carolina in 1964, Republicans won the state in 11 of the next 13 presidential elections.
Once in power for the first time since the 1880s, North Carolina Republicans began entrenching their control of the state. Their main tactic was undoing the last four decades of voting-rights progress through gerrymandering and voter suppression laws. William Barber decried the gerrymandering as “apartheid redistricting” that took the state “way back to the 19th century.” In 2011, the NAACP challenged the law in court, which lead to the ruling that the redistricting was illegal racial gerrymandering.
In 2013, the US Supreme Court become an unwitting accomplice in the NC GOP’s voter suppression efforts. The Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act because they ruled the provision was no longer necessary for ensuring voting rights. Section 4(b) outlined the formula that determines which jurisdictions must follow Section 5 requirements.
This ruling opened the floodgates for the kind discriminatory changes Section 5 was intended to prevent — and had been preventing in North Carolina for over four decades. Newkirk reports that the day of the US Supreme Court decision, State Senator Tom Apodaca discussed the so-called “voter ID” and announced, “Now we can go on with the full bill.” Four days later Pat McCrory signed the bill into law. The federal appeals court decision to nullify the law stated that “neither this legislature — nor, as far as we can tell, any other legislature in the Country — has ever done so much, so fast, to restrict access to the franchise.”
Lessons learned from North Carolina’s history
Trump’s victory shocked many people (especially white, coastal liberals) in part because they did not believe racist fearmongering and scapegoating was possible in the post-Obama world. To them, a black man in the White House heralded the beginning of a new colorblind era where race would no longer be a political issue. But race — and racial tension — rose to the forefront of political controversy during the Obama years. The Birther movement attempted to delegitimize Obama with claims he was born in Kenya, increased exposure of police brutality sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, and a white supremacist massacred 9 black church goers in Charleston, which turned the Confederate Flag into a topic of national debate. Finally, Obama’s presidency was brought to an end with the election of a race-baiting demagogue who began his political career peddling Birther conspiracy theories. In the early hours of the morning after election night on CNN, a visibly upset Van Jones described Trump’s victory as “a whitelash against a changing country, it was a whitelash against a black president in part.” Although, as Jones admitted, reactionary racism is only part of the reason Trump won, it is an important part.
North Carolina’s history, like Trump’s win, reminds us again that progress is not linear. Despite the over-used expression, “two steps forward, one step back,” we seem to forget this — or refuse to believe it.
What we hate to admit is that progress is often less consistent than even the expression suggests. In North Carolina, approximately 12 years of progress for blacks during Reconstruction was followed by over 80 years of repression in the Jim Crow era. The Civil Right Movement reignited progress again in the 1960s but, with the gutting of the VRA in 2013 and the rise of a government hostile to voting rights, progress is threatened once again. This macro-view of history, of course, oversimplifies what actually happened. Within each era of both progress and regression — and within each year — there are ups and downs. And each era contains the seeds of the next era. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, did not appear out of a black hole. Its appearance on the national scene and the change it was able to make was only possible because of years of hard work — and progress — within the regressive Jim Crow era.
In light of this apparent pattern of history, we should have seen Trump coming. Also, the regressive Trump era will likely be followed an era of progress. However likely this scenario seems, it is not inevitable. Its realization depends on the hard work of all people who believe the United States can, and must, do better.