The Washington Post

Is North Carolina moving backward on civil rights?

CHARLOTTE – North Carolina has never had a problem bragging about its progressive history. In 1960, when George Wallace was formulating the hard-line segregationist stand that would propel him to multiple terms in the Alabama statehouse, North Carolina was electing as its governor Terry Sanford, who was an advocate of education, an opponent of capital punishment and took moderate but definite steps toward integration – at the time a risk in the South.

In the early 1970’s, Mecklenburg County liked to contrast pictures of the relative calm that greeted its busing of students to achieve school integration with the violence and vandalism up North in Boston’s busing battles.

And 50 years ago, in May 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public accommodations, Charlotte leaders — black and white — paired up for two-by-two integration of restaurants, called “eat-ins,” a name that played off the “sit-ins” of three years before at a Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s counter.

Sure, the Chamber of Commerce was concerned about image in the business-conscious city, and it took a march led by activist, minister and dentist Dr. Reginald Hawkins to start the ball rolling. But it still made for a harmonious compromise during the same time Bull Connor was turning loose attack dogs and fire hoses on children in Birmingham.

This week, marchers retraced the steps of Charlotte’s marchers, Hawkins’s son returned to hear his father’s words read and remembered, and citizens were urged to hold their own eat-ins on May 29 and 30, with someone of a different race, neighborhood or political view, then gather at the Levine Museum of the New South for a 1960’s style celebration.

But 2013 events in the capital city of Raleigh aren’t mirroring such togetherness. For the last month, marchers have been using the old tactics, and not for nostalgia’s sake. In what they have labeled “Moral Monday” demonstrations, crowds have gathered inside the North Carolina Legislative Building to protest, resulting in an increasing number of arrests by the General Assembly police. Nearly 60 were arrested this past Monday, joining about 100 others already arrested and jailed in three previous protests.

They have drawn hundreds of supporters who share their objection to actions now that a Republican governor and GOP-led legislature are in Raleigh, including the decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid, the reduction of state unemployment benefits, proposals that would cut funding from public education and provide vouchers for private schools, a voter ID bill, and efforts to restart the death penalty and repeal North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences and have them converted to life in prison without parole if they can prove racial bias affected their cases.

As in the 1960’s, the Rev. William Barber, the head of the state NAACP and protest organizer, hopes the impact of the weekly demonstrations will go national. “This leadership wants to make our state a place of deeper stratification and inequality – and it’s not accidental or naïve; it’s premeditated,” he said in a statement. “Here in North Carolina we are seeing a fast march backwards toward as much unequal treatment as people will allow. We are here to say we will not allow it, and we will not go back.”

In a report on Monday’s protest in the News & Observer, Rep. John Blust, a Republican House member, said while watching the demonstration, “People have the right to voice their opinions, but they don’t have the right to force them on others.”

On Tuesday evening in Charlotte, a forum that featured six of the city’s mayors was to be more cooperative than contentious, the kind of event the state prefers, as Democrats and Republicans reveled in past successes and speculated about the city’s hopes for the future. (U.S. Transportation Secretary nominee and current Mayor Anthony Foxx weighed in with a taped segment, since he was in Washington for his appearance before a Senate committee.)

With Foxx’s predecessor, current GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, on the panel, there was bound to be friction, and there was, especially over the style of efforts to shift control of Charlotte’s airport from the city to an independent regional authority, as a measure that has passed in the North Carolina Senate proposes. Former Mayor Harvey Gantt, who said the move felt like a “heist,” said he would have preferred a task force and discussion instead of state action, what he called “the Charlotte way.” He seemed to be longing for past deals between rural, suburban and urban, government and business, Democrats and Republicans, black and white.

But with current policies that highlight clear social, economic and political divisions, the way of Charlotte and North Carolina – despite celebrations of past triumphs – resembles the way of the world.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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