Book Review: Narrative fills holes in state’s political history — Wilmington Star News

Wilmington Star News

Published: Monday, January 6, 2014

Book review: Narrative fills holes in state’s political history
Compared to Atlantic Coast Conference athletics, North Carolina politics has inspired relatively few book-length studies.

There have been fine volumes devoted to key elections, notably Julian Pleasants’ and Augustus Burns’ study of the Willis Smith-Frank Porter Graham Senate race of 1950, or John Dreschner’s account of the 1960 Terry Sanford-I. Beverly Lake primary for governor.

Paul Luebke, a university sociologist who became a state legislator (and a fervent opponent of film incentives) wrote “Tar Heel Politics” in 1990 (updated for the 2000 election). More recently, Rob Christensen, a longtime reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, turned out “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”

Now, however, comes Tom Eamon, an associate professor of political science at East Carolina University, with a full narrative survey of the Tar Heel political scene from the end of World War II through the 2012 presidential election.

Eamon’s “The Making of a Southern Democracy” fills in a lot of holes and makes clear the changes that have gripped North Carolina in the past half-century.

And what changes: In 1948, when dairy farmer Kerr Scott decided to challenge the state’s political establishment for governor, black people didn’t vote in North Carolina, except for a few precincts in Durham, Raleigh and other large cities. Women, mostly, didn’t hold office. (Scott, as governor, would appoint Susie Sharp as the state’s first female judge.)

The civil rights movement would overshadow state politics for decades. Other changes would come later: the decline of the state’s tobacco and textile industries, the rise of the Research Triangle Park and the digital economy.

The political scientist V.O. Key once characterized North Carolina as a “progressive plutocracy,” dominated by business elites who didn’t care for unions but who saw the need for a stronger public education system and other civic improvements.

The white elites (so the argument went) weren’t enthused about the civil rights movement, but they kept civil about it. North Carolina lacked demagogues playing the race card, the way Theodore Bilbo, Eugene Talmadge or Lester Maddox did in other Southern states.

Eamon questions Key’s thesis, to a point. Sure, there were plenty of state leaders, such as Luther Hodges, who fit the “progressive plutocrat” mold. Yet there were always a few populists in the wings (such as Kerr Scott or, to an extent, Terry Sanford) to challenge the elite consensus. And bad stuff did happen. Who remembers Booker T. Spicely, an African-American soldier shot dead for daring to sit in the front of a Durham bus? And then there were the Wilmington Ten.

Eamon doesn’t completely subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history, but, to him, people matter. In North Carolina, in particular, two figures tower over the past 60 years: Jesse Helms, who helped lead the state’s conservative whites into the Republican camp, and Jim Hunt, who served an impressive four terms as governor. A Democrat who cannily balanced progressive and conservative interests, Hunt delayed the Republican takeover of state politics by at least a decade.

One of Eamon’s strengths is his long memory. He recalls once-prominent figures such as W.E. Debnam, the radio commentator who served as a forerunner to Jesse Helms; Charles Johnson, a Pender County native who was a longtime state treasurer and, once, a serious gubernatorial candidate; or Alton Lennon, the congressman from Wilmington who barely missed a long career in the U.S. Senate.

He follows a variety of trends, and misses or underplays few of them. In 1945, for example, North Carolina had the smallest percentage of Catholic residents of any state. By 2000, however, Mike Easley, a Catholic from Brunswick County, could be elected governor without his religion even becoming a matter of comment.

Eamon provides a close analysis of why Barack Obama won North Carolina’s electoral votes in 2008 (but fell short in 2012) and why the anti-gay marriage amendment passed in 2012 despite losing in the state’s five most urban counties. Interviewing both Republican and Democratic sources, he makes a valiant effort to stay neutral.

“The Making of a Southern Democracy” will be required reading for active Republicans and Democrats in this election year, and for many more to come.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208