North Carolina has had a difficult few years in the media. Maybe back in 2014, the headlines about the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid to 500,000 low-income North Carolinians caught your eye. Maybe you heard about the state’s ruthless Voter ID law that, according to a federal appeals court, targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Or maybe you know of the state’s shameful “bathroom bill,” House Bill 2, that eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ citizens and mandated that in government buildings, individuals may only use restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates.
North Carolina’s General Assembly has spent the last six years painting the state such a bright shade of Republican red that it’s difficult to see the vivid shades of Democratic blue that lie in the state’s past and could very possibly resurface in this year’s election, giving the state to Hilary Clinton and electing a new Democratic governor, senator, attorney general, and state supreme court justice. North Carolina was once a leader in the South in its liberal approaches to civil rights and labor disputes, and a national leader in access to and quality of public higher education. But the state remains deeply torn between conservative traditions and progressive ideals. To understand where these progressive ideals originated, there is one man whose story speaks volumes. Frank Porter Graham was president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for almost twenty years. Graham was an active advocate for civil rights, poverty alleviation, public service, and access to higher education. His liberal reputation bled into that of the university he led, which had been transformed, under his leadership, from a provincial state college into the leading institution in the South. In 1949, North Carolina’s governor tapped Graham to fill an empty seat in the U.S. Senate, and in the next year, Graham attempted to win election to the seat. Initially favored, Graham was set back by a growing controversy over civil rights and was defeated by an ugly, race-baiting campaign. Over the next 66 years, liberals in the state, including Democratic governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, have continued to battle Republicans like former Senator Jesse Helms and the current governor, Pat McCrory, for the state’s future. But it began with Frank Porter Graham.