Racism beneath progressive veneer in North Carolina
North Carolina's progressive image is a facade, Finlator believes. While the state has many progressive people and institutions to brag about, Finlator thinks that recent political contests have revealed racism at the state's core. Politicians are willing and able to exploit race to manipulate voters to vote against their own interests.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. 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
- JAY JENKINS:
You mentioned your position on legislative relations. Let me ask you a
pretty general question: just how liberal is the state of North
- WILLIAM W. FINLATOR:
Well, that is a question that has troubled a lot of us. I think that we
have had, in our state, a facade of progressiveness. There is, of
course, some substance to it. I remember reading a
history book, years ago, in which the author was talking about North
Carolina (he was an Englishman). And he was saying that North Carolina
was a state between two aristocratic states: Virginia and South
Carolina. And when the Civil War came, the aristocracy of those
states—the elite quality—was challenged and
toppled. North Carolina never had been one of those high peaks and it
never suffered that kind of "shame" and embarrassment
and therefore, as time went on, it emerged between these two states as a
very progressive state. While they were still struggling with their past
glory. In a sense, that's true.
At that time through the years there was no Baptist school comparable for
its openness in southern states to Wake Forest College, and there was
certainly no university like the University of North Carolina in other
southern states. And there was perhaps no one quite like our Governor
Aycock who was a great devotee of public education. So that all of this
gave an impetus to North Carolina. People like Frank Graham and his
predecessors; people like William Louis Poteat of Wake Forest who fought
the evolution controversy in North Carolina. And because of that we
began to think that we were indeed a progressive state. People like
Governor Scott came along and paved our highways, put us in advance in
some ways of our other southern sister states.
But Jay, this image was kind of exploded in recent elections. When Frank
Graham ran to be elected to the Senate after his appointment by Governor
Scott had expired and when he was defeated on the racial
issue—which pure and simple defeated him—the
illusion of progressiveness vanished. Then came the Jesse Helms years.
And we've discovered that North Carolina is not so
progressive, that if you scratch us enough you will find that we are
racists. And this racism is not confined to what people call
"redneck" people. The racism is in the country clubs,
the chambers of commerce, and we find out that so many of our
ideals—openness, fair play, justice and
equality—dissipate at a time like this. And it's
been a very disillusioning experience for many of us, disappointing and
sad. But we know it's here and we must deal with it.
But, on the other hand there are a great number of North Carolinians as
the vote will show, who will not bow their knee to this kind of Baal and
who stand for justice and rightness and the principles of equity. And
they're outnumbered, but they're here and
they're here in large numbers. And you can count on them.
- JAY JENKINS:
Do you think that prejudice is a greater influence sometimes than
self-interest? Or exerts more influence over the voters sometimes than
their own self-interest?
- WILLIAM W. FINLATOR:
Well, yea, although self-interest is not what the capitalists call
"enlightened self-interest." The leaders of our state
have always known (and it's true) that poor
whites—when push comes to shove—can always be more
vocal and changed by the introduction of the race issue. They have
preferred their poverty to any kind of cooperation with black people.
And our leaders have always been able to defeat populist movements on
this basis, so we don't know our own self-interest when it
comes to this issue. But this has been exploited time and again in the
South and in North Carolina.
And it was exploited dramatically in the Frank Porter Graham election,
when you could even persuade laboring people, textile workers,
industrial unions, to vote against Graham because of the race issue and
the so-called "communist" issue, which of course was a
red bait! And this is a sad spectacle to behold of this real politics of