This year marks 50 years since the end of the one-party South in North Carolina. The Democratic Primary in May of that year gave a hint of what was to come and the November election began to define the modern Republican Party in the South. The forces that reshaped our politics then are still at play today.
In 1968, Democrat Lt. Gov. Bob Scott was trying to follow in his father’s footsteps to become the state’s chief executive. Scott faced Mel Broughton, the son of another governor, and Reginald Hawkins, the first African-American candidate for governor, in the Democratic Primary. The Voting Rights Act had opened the ballot box to black voters, giving Hawkins a substantial base. Scott won with Broughton coming in second and Hawkins third.
Desegregation of schools was one of the defining issue of the campaign. North Carolina had fought off integration through a series of bureaucratic delaying tactics but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was pushing the state to integrate. The federal government, through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the federal court system, was forcing counties to desegregate.
On the Republican side, Congressman Jim Gardner handily won the Republican nomination. With an African-American in the Democratic primary, Republicans saw an opening to reach out to wary working-class whites. Gardner embraced the independent presidential candidacy of George Wallace more than the Republican candidacy of Richard Nixon. He used dog-whistle language vowing to “fight to for the right to govern our schools instead of turning them over to Washington,” letting white voters know he opposed integration. Gardner tried to wrap Scott around Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey who was known for his advocacy of civil rights. His campaign also attacked Scott and the Democrats for advocating for “negroes.”
Scott, for his part, tried to deflect the criticism by saying that Gardner skipped a vote in Congress that would have prevented the federal government from desegregating schools in the South. Scott was victorious but Gardner came much closer than anyone expected. Four years later, Republicans would elect their first governor and U.S. Senator of the 20th century on the strength of a coalition between business conservatives in Charlotte, mountain Republicans and the segregationists who fled the Democratic Party. North Carolina politics would never be the same. A political realignment that began in 1968 had reached completion.
While racial arguments had played out within the Democratic Party for most of the 20th century, following the 1968 election, they became partisan. The Democrats became the party of civil rights and integration. The GOP became the party that opposed integration and the Martin Luther King Holiday–nominated Donald Trump.
Republican partisans like to point out that at the turn of the 20th century, the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. And they’re right. The difference is that Democrats have spent the past 50 years admitting their mistakes and making amends, if imperfectly. Republicans have spent the last 50 years in denial.
We’re watching the same forces that shaped 1968 play out in 2018. Republicans are loath to admit or rebut Donald Trump’s racial innuendo and yet protest vehemently when called out for their complicity. We’ll never heal this country’s racial divide until racists have no refuge in either major party.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis. Originally published at politicsnc.com.