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'New' North Carolina took stage this week

CHARLOTTE Two old political pros – Jesse Jackson and Jim Hunt – gave some thought to what it meant for North Carolina to be on the big stage this week.

North Carolina has been in the spotlight before, of course, mainly for big sporting events such as the NCAA basketball championship or NASCAR races. But nothing on the level of hosting a national political convention.

Jackson, the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, noted that the Democratic convention was being held in “a New North Carolina.”

“We could not have had this convention in North Carolina 40 years ago behind the cotton curtain or the tobacco curtain,” Jackson told the North Carolina delegation this week.

He was referring, of course, to the Jim Crow laws of segregation, which isolated the South culturally and economically from the rest of the country. Jackson, a native of Greenville, S.C., played a significant role in the effort to break down the barriers of segregation, starting as a student body leader at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro in the early 1960s. Later he became a lieutenant of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Only the end of Jim Crow made the New North Carolina possible, Jackson said. Without the cotton curtain coming down, he said there would be no banking giant like Bank of America, there would be no Research Triangle, no professional sports teams such as the NFL Carolina Panthers or the NBA Charlotte Bobcats and even no local college stars such as Michael Jordan.

“You couldn’t have had all the development from Winston-Salem to Greensboro to Raleigh-Durham down to Atlanta behind the cotton curtain,” Jackson said.

“It was a longtime fight with much blood and sacrifice,” Jackson said.

And one that helped reconnect the South and the North, Jackson said, making the country stronger.

No one thinks twice about the country’s first black president being renominated in a Southern state. Or about Charlotte, a predominately white city, having a black mayor.

Several polls by Public Policy Polling between October 2011 and February asked African-Americans their favorite states. Their favorite was Hawaii. Their second favorite was North Carolina.

North Carolina had a favorable rating of 42 percent among blacks, and an unfavorable rating of 14 percent. Compare that with Alabama which had a 14 percent favorable rating and a 56 percent unfavorable rating.

Hunt, the former four-term North Carolina governor, cited the Alabama/North Carolina nexus in another context.

In a speech to the convention Wednesday night, Hunt mentioned his mentor, former Gov. Terry Sanford, and contrasted him with Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s stand for segregation.

“You’ve seen the skyscrapers and all Charlotte has to offer,” Hunt told the convention. “Maybe you’ve heard about our Research Triangle Park. Maybe your children attended one of our great universities. We’re proud of all that, because we made that possible in North Carolina. And let me tell you how.”

“Fifty years ago, this was a poor state – poor, rural, and rigidly segregated,” said Hunt, 75.

“But we had a governor named Terry Sanford – a hero of mine. He was courageous. He broke with most Southerners in 1960 and endorsed John F. Kennedy. When other Southern governors stood in the schoolhouse door, Terry Sanford stood up for civil rights.

“He worked with business leaders, political, and education leaders to build our great universities, our 58 community colleges and our public schools. The result is our high-tech, thriving economy that you see today. Together, we in North Carolina did that – and we’re proud of it.”

The Jackson and Hunt narratives oversimplify North Carolina’s story. North Carolina was the most industrialized state in the South by the 1920s, and was astonishing the rest of the South by spending and borrowing money to pay for its road system and university system.

By the 1940s, outside observers were writing that North Carolina was the most moderate state in the South.

The old North Carolina has had plenty of ugly moments as well. But it was the New North Carolina that was on display this week.

Christensen: 919-829-4532
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