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There was no second suspect in the massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. But the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol bore witness to the fact that Dylann Roof had not acted alone. He was, rather, one more heir to a long legacy of White terrorism in the South. This legacy is celebrated in the public iconography of the South: monuments, buildings, and roads dedicated to the memory of Confederate leaders and their apologists. Many of these commemorations are now the subjects of intense local and national debates. In fact, many of these debates began before the massacre, and before the widespread popular support it galvanized, thanks to the work of the Black Lives Matter movement across the South.
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Here in North Carolina, one focus of the movement’s earlier efforts was the widespread commemoration of former governor Charles Aycock. Aycock’s name has adorned school buildings and university halls across the state since his tenure in the early twentieth century, largely because of his support for universal public education. But Aycock supported less noble causes, too—causes like enforced racial segregation and an amendment to the state constitution designed to disenfranchise Blacks. Indeed, Aycock came to power as a direct consequence of the coup d’etat against a democratically-elected, racially-integrated government in Wilmington in 1898, and the campaign of White terrorism that followed it.
Since 2014, many of the buildings commemorating Aycock have been renamed, and the North Carolina legislature has voted to replace his statue—which had been one of two representing the state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. We applaud these changes. But we also know that superficial changes often serve to obscure more important continuities. We take a look back at one of Aycock’s speeches, with commentary.
[A campaign stump speech, 1910]
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:
When I was in this county in 1900, ten years ago, I spoke on the Constitutional Amendment then pending before the people, and I made certain predictions as to what would be the outcome if the people chose to adopt that Amendment to the Constitution and set free the white men of North Carolina.* […] They denied my prophecies. They went so far as to say that if we adopted the Amendment we would disfranchise the white men of North Carolina, and they fooled themselves and a good many other white men into the belief that the Amendment was fraught with danger notwithstanding which the great, strong, sturdy white men of this State, backed as they were by the pure and noble womanhood, rolled up 50,000 majority for the Amendment.‡ (Cheers.) And every word that I predicted then is history to-day.† There is not a man in North Carolina to-day, be he Democrat or Republican, who is not proud of the progress which has been made by North Carolina since 1900.** […] It is a fine thing to be a Democrat and belong to a party that can bring about this condition of affairs in charity, in industry, in education.‡‡
Now, I take it, my countrymen, that whether we be Democrats or Republicans, that we all want good government, and that all this assembling of the people, this gathering in the public places, this meeting in your primaries, this holding conventions, this leaving your farms and your banks and your stores and your manufacturing plants—all of it is designed for the good of the country.
It is that you may secure good government and equal opportunity for all the people.†† I believe there are few men in any of the parties, few among the masses of the people, who have any other hope or aspiration in their political strife than the building up of the State in which they live, so that they may have good homes for their wives and children and good schools for the children to go to, and to give to each man an opportunity in life.
That is my view of the Democratic party. Our Republican friends have been for some years asking scornfully, “What is a Democrat?” I can tell you what a Democrat is. Some Democratic speaker a short time ago said that a Democrat is a man who votes the Democratic ticket. That is the proof of faith that is in him, but that is not the faith itself.
A Democrat is a man who believes that our national Government has the powers which were granted to it in the Constitution and none other. A Democrat is a man who believes that the powers not granted to the national Government in the Constitution of the United States are reserved to the people or to the States.*** A Democrat is a man who believes that the power of taxation is the power to destroy, and that this power was never vested in any Government by a free people except to defray the expenses of the Government economically administered.‡‡‡ A Democrat is a man who believes in the individual and thinks that his rights ought not to be restricted in any respect save only so far as is essential to the peace and progress of his neighbors.††† A Democrat believes in order to be responsive to the quick demands of the people the Government should be as close to the people as it is possible to bring it. A Democrat believes that when you have centralized your Government and made it strong and put it far away from the people, that the great mass of the people can’t put their hands upon that Government and enforce the will of the multitude.****
We are making more progress, and have made more in the past ten years, under Democratic rule than any other State in the American Union. And the time is shortly before us when we shall take our stand in the forefront of the States of the Union. Strong, educated, virile, we have the bravest men and the purest women, and are therefore capable of accomplishing more than men less brave and women less pure. Let us maintain the benefit of this ancient government bequeathed to us by our forefathers, and may God bless you every one!
*Aycock is referring to the Suffrage Amendment to the North Carolina Constitution, passed in 1900. The Amendment was designed to disenfranchise Blacks by mandating literacy tests and poll taxes for anyone who hadn’t (or whose father hadn’t) been able to vote before the Civil War—effectively limiting the franchise to Whites.
‡Aycock’s language sounds dated now, but his anxiety about the purity of White women is very much alive. Sometimes, it’s explicit: Dylann Roof is alleged to have told his victims he was killing them because they “rape our women,” and Donald Trump worries aloud that Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists. This racist, sexist anxiety survives in subtler ways too: from America’s well-guarded White suburbs, to racially-oriented suspicion at high school proms, to our thriving market in handguns designed specifically for women.
†Positioning himself as a kind of prophet, implying that good things not just arise but can be predicted to arise from preservation of a regressive racial order, Aycock underlines his and others’ belief in the naturalism of White supremacy and Black inferiority. Naturalist arguments about race persist today, most noticeably in conservative criticisms of “Black culture,” which assert that there’s something inherent (if, in this formulation, malleable) about the Black race that’s to blame for the problems Blacks face.
**Part of the “progress” Aycock is referring to is his legacy in public education. One of his arguments for expanding education was that poor Whites would gain the literacy they needed to vote in spite of the aforementioned amendment; in other words, Aycock’s agenda in education was inseparable from his commitment to White supremacy, and his support for education consequently selectively favored White education. Because our contemporary school systems derive a substantial portion of their funding from local sources, they also often selectively favor White education, as our neighborhoods have been built and fortified along racial lines. This tendency is well-documented. For an introduction, see Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.
‡‡The current strength of the Republican Party in the South is a consequence of a deliberate “Southern strategy” to attract White voters who harbored racial resentment following the civil rights movement. Republican strategist Lee Atwater laid out how racism built the party’s new platform: “ You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
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††Aycock implies that “the people” are not all that different from the members of his audience, who would virtually all have been White men. His vision of the American public as a White public remains a part of our political consciousness, enabled in part by a Republican Party which, after the Southern Strategy, has sought favor with Whites by imagining America as an entirely White nation. In 1984, Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” campaign ad featured dozens of families and faces; none were Black. Today, per Atwater’s advice to keep racism on the down-low, things are a bit more subtle. But Paul Ryan still talks blames “inner city men” (wonder who those could be) for inner-city poverty, and Jeb Bush boosts his poll numbers by asserting that people saying “Black Lives Matter” believe that White lives don’t matter, and the GOP voter base is still 90 percent White (95 percent in the primaries).
***Aycock’s emphasis on states’ rights survives in the contemporary conservative sphere: states’ rights as opposition to gay marriage; states’ rights as opposition the EPA and federal gun control; states’ rights as opposition to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. Given that Blacks are more likely than Whites to be harmed by environmental degradation, gun violence, and lack of access to healthcare, most of today’s states’ rights arguments still encode a kind of racial violence.
‡‡‡Over the last hundred years, the sentiment has hardly changed. Compare to the Republican National Committee’s official 2012 platform: “Taxes, by their very nature, reduce a citizen’s freedom. Their proper role in a free society should be to fund services that are essential and authorized by the Constitution.” In Aycock’s time, the unspoken extension of this principle was that taxes should not be used to level the playing field between Whites and Blacks in the South. If you doubt there are racial undertones today, just ask Rick Santorum, who in 2012 declared “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
†††Compare again the the Republican 2012 platform: “We are the party of independent individuals and the institutions they create… [the Constitution] confirms our God-given individual rights.” Neither Aycock nor the contemporary RNC mention the people whose rights they don’t believe in: Aycock clearly didn’t believe in the right of Blacks to vote, and the Republican Party clearly doesn’t believe in the right of queer Americans to marry those whom they love. Of course, no one believes in an unlimited list of rights—but it is interesting that both Aycock and modern Republicans position themselves as champions of individual rights while simultaneously working to limit some of the most sought-after rights of their respective eras. (And while the Republican Party wouldn’t admit it, many legal commentators agree that their “voter ID” laws are deliberately designed to disenfranchise Blacks today.)
****The Republican 2012 platform: “It isn’t enough to merely downsize government… We must do things in a dramatically different way by reversing the undermining of federalism and the centralizing of power in Washington. We look to the example set by Republican Governors and legislators all across the nation. Their leadership in reforming… government closest to the people vindicates the role of the States as the laboratory of democracy.”