Watching the Amendment One results come in on Tuesday night was not easy.
Realizing that Amendment One would pass was disconcerting.
Learning that Amendment One had passed was painful.
And yet. And yet. We should be thankful. I certainly am.
I am thankful for the 832,219 voters in NC who voted for justice, by voting against Amendment One.
I am thankful for the seven counties in NC who voted against the amendment. Granted, there are 100 counties in NC, but we have to start somewhere, and these counties, as evidenced below, are a great place to start.
Mecklenburg County, the most populated county, and my home county, voted against the amendment by a margin of 54.18% to 45.82%. For that I am thankful.
Wake County, our State capital, voted against the amendment. For that I am thankful.
Orange County (home of UNC Chapel Hill), Durham County (home of Duke University and NC Central University), Watauga County (home of Appalachian State University) and Buncombe County (home of UNC Asheville), voted against the amendment. These are counties with universities. With young people. With people who take education seriously. For that I am thankful.
I am thankful too for all the law professors who spent signficant time to educate the public on the legal issues of Amendment One.
I am thankful too for the politicians who weren’t afraid to take a stand against the amendment, and for the business people who spoke up against it.
I am thankful too for the lawyers who became active to help people understand the meaning of their vote on the amendment.
I am thankful too for all the “straight but not narrow” people of NC who voted against the amendment, because a minority group cannot obtain equality on its own.
I also am thankful to my law partners who provided encouragement, to those who read and agreed with me, but also to those who had a different opinion on certain issues but who engaged with me in thoughtful conversation.
I am thankful for my fellow church members at St. John’s Baptist church who encouraged me to continue writing and to my ministers who helped increase my faith by their presence beside me on this issue.
I am thankful for the people I know and to the people I have never met who engaged with me on this blog, to those who supported me, to those who corrected me and even to those who disagreed with me, because they took time to listen to what I had to say.
I am thankful for my friends, both local and far away, from high school, college and law school, who found out I was writing about this topic and who lent their support by a call, or an email or a text message.
I am also thankful for the opportunity to write. When I thought about creating this blog, I didn’t know where to start. My daughter said I should go to wordpress.com and follow the directions. I figured if I created a blog, maybe a few hundred people might look at the site and if I reached a 1000 viewers, it would be fantastic. Yet, before the results of the vote were announced on Tuesday night, I had received more than 60,000 views on the site, 30,000 of which occurred in the last three days leading up to the vote. I don’t know how it happened, but I am thankful that it did and for the opportunity to be able to speak with so many people.
And finally, for my family, I am very thankful. For my mother, who began wearing a Vote Against button and was proud to tell me one day that she had explained some of the issues to her friends and they had told her they were going to vote against the amendment. For my father, who engaged me on the legal issues and encouraged me on. For my sister, who sent me information from her home state of Vermont to educate me on civil unions and offer support. And to my brother, who is one of the hardest workers I know and the least judgmental of the clan.
I am thankful too for my son, who did his best to wake up the Wake Forest University community by writing against Amendment One in the student newspaper. And for my daughter, who always is working for a cause outside herself, and who inspired me in my work, I am thankful.
And for my wife, Janet, I am thankful. She put up with the late night blogging, the frustrations, the disappointments and she continued to remind me when others said this was a lost cause, that no cause which is worth fighting for is a lost cause, and for all of that, I am very grateful.
And although I am thankful for everything I mentioned, it is an emotional time as well.
We hurt for the many people of this state to whom this amendment shows disrespect and to those who could be impacted in more tangible ways.
We cringe at the ministers who cheer the outcome on the front page of the paper, and we shake our heads at the politicians –like Bill James in Charlotte — who wants to use the vote to deny benefits to his county employees less than 24 hours after the votes are tallied.
Our natural reaction is to fight fire with fire, but we cannot bring others in our State along with acrimony.
We need to continue to educate, to help people understand — not back them in a corner by calling them names.
And we also have to remember that when others criticize our state, they are not criticizing all of us, though it may sound like it at times.
On May 2nd, Dr. Karl Campbell, an Applachian State professor, presented at a conference in Charlotte entitled: “Moving Forward Together: Deliberating the Implications of Amendment One”.
Dr. Campbell was not then and is not now advocating for or against Amendment One. He is a history professor, who talked about NC history.
And yet, what I find in his message about North Carolina is comforting; a factual basis for that feeling we call hope.
North Carolina’s Historical Legacy
I am here tonight as a historian and of course my views do not necessarily represent my employer Appalachian State University. Furthermore, I am not, in any way, an expert on Amendment One. I am reminded of a comment made by another speaker in a similar situation. He said: “I am too ignorant to discuss it wisely, and too wise to discuss it ignorantly.” I am going to follow that example tonight.
A historian’s job is to place a topic in the context of time and place. To do that with Amendment One tonight I want to ask: What kind of state is North Carolina?
North Carolina’s historical image is very contradictory and has been for over a hundred years. It may surprise you to learn that soon after 1900, and through most of the last century, North Carolina was most often described by the adjective “progressive.” It was common to have North Carolina referred to as “the most progressive southern state.”
The famous political scientist V. O. Key summarized the conventional view of North Carolina in 1949 when he explained that “the state enjoys a reputation for its progressive outlook and action in many phases of life, especially industrial development, education and [to some extent] race relations,” at least when he compared us to our moss back neighbors in the Deep South.
We even earned a few interesting nicknames in the first half of the twentieth century. Key called us “the progressive plutocracy”—“progressive” because of our forward-looking paternalistic leaders, “plutocracy” because those leaders were a small group of rich industrialists and wealthy agriculturalists who did not willing share their power.
We were also nicknamed “The Wisconsin of the South.” Just as Wisconsin became famous for leading the North in progressive reforms, North Carolina seemed to be leading the South during the Progressive Movement. Interestingly, a recent study finds that of all the states in the Union North Carolina most closely resembles Wisconsin in public opinion polls.
Yet North Carolina’s progressive image existed side by side with social and economic facts that contradicted profoundly the state’s reputation.
-We became the most industrialized state in the South during the first half of the twentieth century, yet we also had the nation’s largest rural farm population.
-The home of nationally respected institutions of higher education such as UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, and Davidson, we also had a high school dropout rate of over 32 percent, one of the highest in the nation.
-In spite of our progressive efforts to build roads and solve social problems we consistently ranked under 45th in the quality of life and 32nd in per capita income.
Thad Beal, a political scientist at Chapel Hill writing in the 1970s, observed that these contrasting tendencies “suggest the difficulties in generalizing about the state since it is neither simply “Liberal” nor simply “Conservative.” He concluded that the best we can do is agree to call it a “Progressive Paradox.”
Working within this progressive paradox there have generally been two different types of politicians representing two different types of political cultures. Instead of calling them liberal and conservative (which is neither helpful nor accurate) scholars have identified two different strains of conservatism running through the twentieth century: traditionalist and modernist.
-Traditionalists are motivated by their concern that traditional, Christian family values are being threatened by the modern world. They tend to be anti-government, anti-taxes, suspicious of higher education, and worried about the impact of modernity on our culture and society.
-Modernists are motivated by their desire to harness the rapid changes taking place to improve business and create jobs. They tend to want to use the government to promote development, increase funding for education, and reconcile themselves to the social transformations occurring around them.
The archetypical traditionalist would be Senator Jesse Helms.
The prototype of a modernist would be Governor Jim Hunt.
Throughout the twentieth century our contradictory state has experienced defining moments in which traditionalists and modernists clashed over the future of North Carolina. In the few minutes I have left I would like to point out four of these defining historical moments that seem particularly relevant to our debate over Amendment One today.
In 1908, by a referendum vote of 62 percent to 38 percent, North Carolina became the first southern state to enact statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The Raleigh News and Observer proclaimed that “The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow on a State Redeemed from the Whiskey Evil—Saloons.” Of course back then Prohibition was seen as a very “progressive” reform, but it still pitted the traditionalists against the modernizers and the traditionalist won.
At the turn of the century when a Yancey County Republican introduced the first woman’s suffrage bill in the General Assembly the all-male legislature referred the bill to the Committee of Insane Asylums (!) where it died. In 1920 the North Carolina Legislature voted against the Nineteenth Amendment even as it passed throughout most of the country and became part of the Constitution. But don’t worry. The General Assembly did make up for its mistake by passing a resolution supporting the right of women to vote—in the 1970s.
Senator Sam Ervin used to tell a story about the time a visitor asked the Senate Chaplain: “Reverend, when you pray, do you look at the tragic condition of the country and then pray for the legislators to find solutions?” The Chaplain replied: “No, I look at the legislators and pray for the country.”
Darwin in the Schools
In 1925 North Carolina had a heated debate over whether to prohibit the teaching of Darwin in the public schools. In this defining moment it was the modernists who won, protecting academic freedom and keeping Darwinism as a part of the science curriculum. That same year the state of Tennessee went the other way and voted to remove Darwin from the schools, which led to the famous and embarrassing “Scopes Trial” that helped to define Tennessee’s image for the rest of the century.
The Brown Decision
In 1956 Governor Luther Hodges proposed a Constitutional Amendment to prevent the racial integration of North Carolina’s public schools. The Pearsall Plan, as it was called, passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin which sent it to the public for a vote (much like the one we are discussing tonight). It passed by a five to one margin. The Pearsall Plan constitutional amendment delayed significant racial integration in North Carolina for over a decade.
Allow me to share a few brief observations about these defining events in our history:
1) These large cultural crusading moments are usually democratic, in that they do express the will of the majority, even as they also limit the rights of the minority.
2) They are usually, although not always, won by the traditionalists who are turning to law or government to turn back the waves of change sweeping over the state and the country.
3) They are seldom successful in the long run, as the strengthening currents of the modern world overcome the legal and constitutional barriers set up against them.
Today in North Carolina alcohol is sold, Darwin is taught, women can vote, and Jim Crow segregation is gone.
So here we are again at another defining historical event in our state’s history, another contest between traditionalists and modernizers, another historical moment in which we will help to define the Progressive Paradox.
I would like to suggest that there is another way to think about North Carolina’s progressive reputation that is relevant to our debate over Amendment One. Perhaps being a progressive state is not just about the outcome but about the process.
Maybe our community can avoid the hateful divisions that have torn so many others states apart during this debate. Maybe we can fight hard, but fight fair, and not lose sight of the humanity of our adversaries. This would be progress and it would be a positive outcome no matter whether you believe Amendment One is a blessing or a travesty.
I will close with a well known Rabbinic story:
An ancient Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. One student asked: “Could it be when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”
No, answered the Rabbi.
Another student asked: “Could it be when you can look at the tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”
No, answered the Rabbi again.
“Well, then, what is it?” his pupils demanded.
“It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or your brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
Here is hoping for a bright tomorrow.