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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

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

You mentioned your position on legislative relations. Let me ask you a pretty general question: just how liberal is the state of North Carolina?
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.
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?
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 North Carolina.