Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Floyd B. McKissick Sr., December 6, 1973. Interview A-0134. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A cycle of liberalism and backlash in North Carolina's racial history

McKissick addresses the role of race in North Carolina's politics. He believes that North Carolina enjoys a more progressive racial posture, but sees a cycle of liberalism and backlash, maybe a kind of duality, such as exists in the form of the state's relatively moderate Republican governor, Jim Holshouser. As McKissick remembers his own efforts to force racial progress, he argues that while white North Carolinians might not be progressive leaders, they respond without rancor to that kind of pressure.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Floyd B. McKissick Sr., December 6, 1973. Interview A-0134. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You mentioned Frank Porter Graham's campaign for the Senate and you had a role in that. How would you describe that campaign?
Well, I think that Frank Porter Graham had a massive appeal as an educator. He was a very progressive man. At that time, it was…how you used terms and labels was much different from now. A great effort in the campaign was not to bill him as a liberal. It would have been better, and I think possibly because he was a natural, very warm human who held compassion for people enabled the strict conservative forces to organize against him. You remember he was defeated in the run-off, he won in the first election. And at that time, it was…the primary, he won the primary and then the run-off election, he was defeated because they had then decided to really launch into an attack upon him because of the strong black support that he had. That fact was used against him. And they organized along racial lines. That campaign was done that way. Bad literature went out making him to be everything that he wasn't. At that time, to associate with blacks openly in this part of the country…a certain amount of association was permissible, but then some other forms were not. And it was a very bad campaign, bad in the sense that he lost, but it was bad for the state because I think that he would have played a hell of a force in moving the South and the nation forward.
You mentioned Key's book. Key refers to North Carolina as a progressive tradition, being open in ideas and advanced from the rest of the South in attitudes toward blacks and generally just being far more progressive. Now, since Key's book, you not only had Graham's defeat, you had the defeat of the two North Carolina congressmen who refused to signtthe Southern Manifesto in 1956, you had the victory last year of George Wallace in the presidential primary over Terry Sanford and you had the victory of Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate. My question is this: was Key right and if he was right, has there been change since in so far as there is a progressive attitude in North Carolina?
Well, I think that Key was correct. I think that there have been some changes and the changes on the national level also affect your state-wide changes. You could also add to the defeat of Galifinakis by Jesse Helms to the list of changes and attitudes, but then one must look to the adequacy of a campaign, how it was financed, the organizers, the sentiment of the people, the times. Then, you've got to look at the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and its major effect upon the United States was a very positive one, but the nation moves into fads and it was "do-good to the black people" during the sixties, 61 and '62 and then it fades. And then the riots came about and then you had that reverse trend. The urban riots created a "this is as far as we are going" attitude and "we will stop here." And that was in all of the major cities and then that attitude, the rebellions and the riots came to smaller communities and southern communities after it had left the big urban society. Which means that you've got a delay in a period of time and I think that all of these and the war, the Vietnam crisis at that time, all of these have an effect or influence candidates to posture their positions on the attitudes and sentiments of the people. On the other hand, you could point to say, the recent election of Jim Holshouser, who was a liberal Republican as opposed to a very conservative Republican. And you can contrast the difference between a Holshouser and a Jesse Helms. I think that you could find more individual patterns like that. I think that North Carolina is a state of constraint. It never had people to stand in the school doors and say, "Thou shalt not pass," for example. I think that it's always been an attitude to move forward. Not only was I the first black to attend the University of North Carolina, I turned around and sued to open up the undergraduate school of the University of North Carolina and you were able to reach a compromise…I broke down segregation in the mental hospitals in North Carolina, too…and there's been an attitude of "Well, I'm willing to do it, but go ahead and sue me so I can do it." It's been that kind of an attitude. "The public makes me do it." In other words, "I'm safe in doing it when I'm forced. If I do it beforehand, I'm classified as a liberal, and I can't." [interruption]
…1948 to 1973 in terms of the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina. If you were to think of gains made in that time, there may be lots of moving forward and backwards, but does it separate into periods? Or is it pretty much a steady progression? Is there anyway to look at that twenty-five year period?
And is North Carolina just part of the overall South?
Well, I think that certainly, it would be part of the overall South, but I think that North Carolina…one way you could examine that period, one could easily examine from the type of lawsuits for the advancement of the cause of black people in the various areas to get an index of what occurred. And I would think that during that period of time, the emphasis was on education, primarily. The education and upward mobility of educators is basically concerned I think with education and I think also with some integration of labor unions. Once again, you are looking at a number of attitudes that influenced the attitudes of those in power…their ability to do things without a force of law, was also important. During Terry Sanford's time, I think he used general orders or just put good people in spots to try to make things happen, who would move along. Once you had a Civil Rights Act passed, it was easier to do things. So, North Carolina has had an attitude of once it is put in a position to do something along racial lines, most of the time, it cheerfully accepted the mandate and went on and did it. And then, I think there's a difference in attitudes between the larger metropolitan areas…of course, we have an agrarian state basically and we have no major big cities, our largest cities are around a 100,000, Charlotte may be up to 150,000 now. Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, High Point, Asheville, Wilmington, places like that are around 100,000. But I think that in most of the middle Piedmont area, there's an attitude to go forward, to do more.