Excerpt: The Making of a Southern Democracy by Tom Eamon

Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory  by Tom EamonThe story of modern politics in North Carolina is very much one of American democracy, with all its grand ambitions, limitations, and pitfalls. So argues Tom Eamon in his probing narrative of the state’s political path since the 1940s. In The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory, Eamon charts the state’s political transformation into a modern democratic society to show that this change was more than an evolution—it was a revolution, one that largely came about through political means, driven by strong movements and individuals working for change.

In this excerpt (pp. 84-89), Eamon discusses the steps that North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford took to improve racial relations in his state as greater changes occurred on a national scale.


When Sanford took his oath of office in 1961, North Carolina’s racial order had changed little from 1910. Segregation remained entrenched. Despite the introduction of token integration in a few urban school systems and the state colleges, 99 percent of the state’s black public school students attended racially separate schools. The federal courts had ruled against the legality of segregation on buses and trains, but station facilities remained rigidly segregated, as did hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, public parks, and beaches. In the case of eating and sleeping establishments, “segregation” usually meant that blacks were banned outright except from places that served blacks only.

Though the black proportion of registered voters exceeded the low levels of pre–World War II days, whites still constituted 90 percent of the registered electorate. Nonwhites (a category that also included Native Americans and Asians) comprised nearly 25 percent of the population. A study by the federal-government-sponsored North Carolina Advisory Commission on Civil Rights estimated that in 1961, 90.2 percent of the potential white electorate was registered, compared to only 31.2 percent of the potential nonwhite voters. In the state’s major cities—Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem—black registration was heavy enough to influence some election outcomes. In rural and small-town counties, especially those of the coastal plain and the eastern piedmont, black voting was discouraged and remained low.[1]

Raleigh News and Observer editor Jonathan Daniels had counseled Sanford to make a bold statement on racial equality in his 1961 inaugural address, but Sanford incorporated only one sentence on the subject: “We are not going to forget as we move into the challenging years ahead, that no group of our citizens can be denied the right to participate in first class citizenship.”[2] Still, from a southern governor in 1961, such a statement signaled a break with tradition. In addition, Sanford’s daughter, Betsee, and son, Terry Jr., were enrolled in the “integrated” Murphy School (which had one black student) near the governor’s mansion rather than in a private school. North Carolina and national newspapers noted the symbolism of the decision.[3]

Both Sanford and John Kennedy, who assumed the presidency on January 20, 1961, saw economic reform and new government social programs as their road to building a legacy. Both viewed the impending racial crisis as political dynamite and a diversion from their main agendas. However, both also soon found themselves drawn into the maelstrom of racial conflict. Initially hesitant to confront racial inequality head-on, Kennedy and, more discreetly, Sanford emerged as leading white advocates for change.

Sanford had nervously watched the lunch counter sit-ins when he campaigned in 1960. In 1961, demonstrations continued, though the focus of the civil rights movement shifted further south, providing North Carolina with a brief respite. In the interim, Sanford and his director of conservation and development, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, moved to desegregate state-owned parks. Parks had been segregated by administrative regulations rather than formal statute, so a new policy could be enacted without a bruising and very public legislative fight. With the cooperation of parks supervisor Thomas C. Ellis, a Sanford loyalist, park desegregation was enacted on an incremental basis and attracted minimal public attention. In the spring of 1962, a policy directive approved by Sanford stated, “It is now the policy that no colored person shall be denied the use of any facility in any state park nor shall any employee by words or action make the impression that their use is not permitted.”[4] While the administration took this action in part to avoid rumored lawsuits, both Sanford and Bowles thought it was the morally proper thing to do. Moreover, they acted a year before the Kennedy administration proposed requiring similar standards throughout the United States.

In 1962 and 1963, Freedom Riders, many from outside North Carolina, targeted segregation in bus station waiting rooms, restrooms, and dining rooms as well as chain restaurants—notably S&W cafeterias and Howard Johnson’s restaurants. The atmosphere became heated as hundreds and then thousands of North Carolina students and other sympathizers joined in the biggest social protests seen yet. No longer was it so easy to blame the movement on “outside agitators.” Bus stations in North Carolina, more often than further South, began grudgingly to accept desegregation where the issue was forced. Owners of independent restaurants resisted, not merely because they opposed integration but also because they feared the reaction of their white patrons.

Unlike many white leaders of the time, Sanford was acquainted with many black business and political leaders. He brought Durham bank executive John Wheeler into interracial discussions. Wheeler publicly prodded Sanford to take bolder steps toward integration but also offered vital links to more militant younger people whom Sanford did not know. On one occasion, Sanford held a private meeting with James Farmer, the national head of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the group’s second-ranking official, Durham’s Floyd McKissick. The two men promised temporarily to suspend the demonstrations after one more big push to give Sanford a chance to work from the top. If he could not produce results, however, the demonstrations would resume with increased furor.

Sanford stealthily urged local officials and business owners to accept some desegregation in restaurants and public facilities. Durham businessman R. Wensell Grabarek, who was elected mayor with strong black support in 1963 and who wanted a quick end to the huge demonstrations in his city, moved with dispatch. Grabarek, in cooperation with local business leaders, including the economically powerful Hill family, pushed hesitant white restaurant proprietors to drop their rigid segregation policies. Sanford and other urban leaders argued that ending formal racial barriers would promote peace and a good business climate.[5]

To accept change was portrayed as an act of local patriotism. Otis Kapsalis, the co-owner of Durham’s Palms restaurant, a downtown establishment catering to business and professional people, families, and Duke students, later said that he came under pressure from banker George Watts Hill to integrate or have his mortgage called in.[6] Around the same time, Thomas Pearsall of Rocky Mount, who had chaired the commission on school segregation in the 1950s, quietly integrated the Howard Johnson’s restaurants he owned along Highway 301 in one of the most hard-core segregationist parts of the state. Pearsall, who combined an inbred conservatism with a progressive spirit, was close to Sanford as well as to his predecessor, Hodges. Pearsall and his wife, Elizabeth, were touched when they observed that when military buses stopped at the Pearsalls’ restaurants, black soldiers had to eat outside while whites partook inside.[7] The fears of Sanford and key white business and political elites—and in Sanford’s case at least some sympathy for the civil rights cause—brought substantial restaurant desegregation to North Carolina a year before it was required by federal legislation. The national media saluted Sanford’s initiatives, which reached fruition at around the time that Birmingham, Alabama, public safety director Eugene “Bull” Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators seeking to end segregation. By that standard, Sanford was an “enlightened” southern leader. But for a while at least, most small-town restaurants and many less visible urban establishments stayed rigidly segregated, as did nearly all of the state’s hotels and motels.

Largely in response to events in Birmingham, President Kennedy proposed sweeping national civil rights legislation in the summer of 1963. With Congress considering a measure that required an end to racial segregation in government-owned facilities as well as an end to segregation in privately owned facilities serving the general public, a long period of hearings began.

In September 1962, Sanford had proposed the establishment of the North Carolina Good Neighbor Council to forge better racial relations and economic opportunity. In a speech to the Methodist Men of the Gastonia area, the governor was vague and seemed to go little further than Governor Cameron Morrison’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation in the 1920s. But Sanford was serious about racial change. Further pursuing the idea in a Chapel Hill speech to the North Carolina Press Association on January 18, 1963, he proclaimed, “The American Negro was freed from slavery one hundred years ago. . . . Now is a time not merely to look back to freedom but forward to the fulfillment of its meaning.” Sanford added that employment discrimination against African Americans held back the nation and concluded that discrimination needed to end “because it is honest and fair for us to give all men and women their best chance in life.”[8]

On the same day, Sanford issued a statement setting up the biracial North Carolina Good Neighbor Council to improve employment opportunities. He asked that county commissioners establish similar local councils, a step some of them soon took. Sanford was the first high elected official in the American South to declare racial equality the official state policy. Knowing the sensitivity of the state’s elites to the North Carolina image and the entire population’s stake in economic prosperity, he linked this action to self-interest. But Sanford stated courageously and emphatically that employment discrimination and by implication overt racism were wrong. Perhaps this time, Sanford’s conscience played as big a role as political calculation or the need to respond to an explosive situation. As Sanford negotiated with conflicting parties in 1962 and 1963, he suffered politically, but his legacy was solidified. His enemies watched in amazement and anger and marshaled their forces for battles to come. But no one anticipated the shots that would echo around the world.


From The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory by Tom Eamon. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]In the rural Black Belt counties, dramatic growth in African American voting would not occur until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  2. [2]Sanford, “Inaugural Address,” 8.
  3. [3]Covington and Ellis, <em>Terry Sanford</em>, 250–51. Bill Campbell, the young African American who integrated the Murphy School, was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1993.
  4. [4]The statement’s wording was clever, almost suggesting there had never been segregation in the parks.
  5. [5]Often portrayed as defenders of the status quo, the business titans were often ahead of the general public on racial issues. This was especially true of development-oriented leaders such as bankers who believed that a protracted racial struggle would hurt the business climate.
  6. [6]Otis Kapsalis statement, July 1963. Statement made to author’s family in presence of author. Kapsalis also said he was acting in “the interest of the community.”
  7. [7]Though associated with the 1950s effort to maintain segregation, Pearsall was by the early 1960s clearly part of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Had Pearsall decided to run for governor in 1964, Sanford would likely have backed him.
  8. [8]Terry Sanford, “Observation for a Second Century,” January 18, 1963, in <em>Messages, Addresses, and Public Papers</em>, ed. Mitchell, 574.