Micah Khater, a previous contributor to N.C. Policy Watch and a Caldwell Fellow in the University Honors Program at N.C. State University majoring in History and French, recently authored the following interesting essay on the efforts of state lawmakers to impose new electoral maps in Wake and Guilford Counties:
Echoes of North Carolina’s dark past
By Micah Khater
Our politicians often try to resurrect images of the past in order to justify present decisions. For many, history can have a political purpose: it can be used to uphold conservative ideals of American tradition while omitting the imperfections of our past. But this version of history is fraught with errors and grossly oversimplified. If we submit to the desires of those who wish to erase the flaws of our history, we will lose the hindsight necessary to fully evaluate present public policy.
As I was listening to the recent controversy over the General Assembly’s proposal to redistrict the Wake County Commission and Greensboro City Council, I found myself reflecting on a story that sounded eerily similar.
It was 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of enacting major legislation as a part of his New Deal. White Democrats maintained a choke-hold on the South. It’s important to remember that “Democrats” and “Republicans” of the early Twentieth Century were not what they are today. Although FDR was a Democrat, and often strived to appeal to southern lawmakers, his New Deal legislation threatened the racial and economic hierarchy enforced by the Democratic Party of the South. Anxieties ran high among North Carolina Democrats who worried that the New Deal might accelerate labor movements. Even though they singlehandedly controlled all state-level politics, the Democrats worried about a few renegade counties in the western part of North Carolina.
Wilkes County was one of those Republican strongholds. There were only a handful of counties in the western part of the state, like Wilkes, that had not yet disenfranchised African American voters, most likely because of their historic support for the GOP in a Democratic-majority state. Voters in Wilkes County consistently elected Republican county commissioners, who controlled, as they do now, local budgets and public schools. State lawmakers saw counties, likeWilkes, as a direct threat and sought to regain authority in the area.
Lennox Polk McLendon, the Chairman of the State Board of Elections and the son-in-law of former Governor Charles Aycock, felt that something had to be done about those pockets of Republican voters. In hopes of getting more Democrats elected to the County Commission, McLendon and the State Board of Elections opted to redistrict Wilkes County in September of 1934, just before the coming election.
McLendon half-heartedly concealed the real reason for the change, shrouding the decision in logistical concerns. He wrote that “some of the precincts were so large that it is a physical impossibility for the registered voters to vote between sunup and sundown in an orderly fashion.”
The State Board of Elections redistricted Wilkes County, purged its registration books, and required all citizens to re-register. African Americans faced a new round of disfranchisement and the Democrats succeeded in infiltrating the county’s local politics.
Today, Republicans in the General Assembly have decided to redistrict two counties whose local politics displease them. Like McLendon, those who support Senate Bill 181 must realize that their attempts to justify this blatant disregard for the democratic process will become more and more transparent. Senator Dan Blue called out the legislation as an affront to the “fundamental idea of what representative democracy is.” He’s right and if we allow lawmakers to manipulate the democratic process, we, as the people, will quickly lose any power we may have.
The current proposal to redistrict opposes the very principles of our government. In 1934, white Democrats used their authority to disenfranchise the people of Wilkes County. Today, state Republicans are trying to do the same in Wake and Guilford County. Our history can remind us of our past transgressions and prompt us to avoid them in our future. In this case, our past is telling us that this redistricting is not merely an issue of “rural versus city,” as Republican lawmakers have argued. It’s a concern with losing power and a fundamental distrust of the people.