I recently finished reading a book, Sam Ervin: Last of the Founding Fathers, that retells the history of North Carolina and the country via the personal story of Senator Sam Ervin. Ervin served as a US Congressman, county judge, superior court judge, North Carolina Supreme Court justice and state legislator in addition to his 20 year tenure as a senator. While less known than North Carolina’s infamous Senator Jesse Helms, Ervin played an important role during two key moments in our country’s history. Ervin led both the “soft Southern strategy” used to subvert civil rights legislation in the Senate and the fight against the Nixon administration that ultimately ended in his resignation. It is the former that bears on my mind as I look back at last November’s election results.
“Senator Sam” as he was known, led the Senate’s charge against Nixon’s imperial presidency, clashing with the administration on many issues and ultimately chairing the Watergate hearings. Ervin was a bull on civil liberties, challenging the executive branch’s authority to gather information about its own law-abiding citizens. Sound familiar? It was clear that Ervin held a citizen’s right to a life free from government intrusion as central to the maintenance of American democracy. In the character of the “mountain people” of North Carolina’s west, Ervin was automatically suspicious of government activity and expansion of power. As a lawyer and former judge, Ervin was considered one of the Senate’s foremost constitutional scholars, and was called on by his colleagues to defend constitutional rights on several occasions. It was in this role that Ervin repeatedly crossed swords with the Nixon administration over various intelligence-gathering techniques that involved planting spies in public gatherings and infiltrating peaceful groups advocating policies opposed to those of the president. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Ervin was charged with leading a committee to investigate the break-in, bringing the scandal to a head and contributing to Nixon’s demise. He was an invaluable tool in this regard, and was highly regarded for his intelligence and abilities as a constitutional scholar.
Unfortunately, sometimes good, intelligent and rational people can hold to antiquated views despite their obvious flaws. Sam Ervin’s great constitutional mind was also put to use to subvert court rulings and legislation aimed at rectifying hundreds of years of slavery, violence and oppression in this country. And Ervin, thought ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts to thwart the civil rights movement, did perfect the argument still used today against those that would ensure the protection of minorities (of all types). Known as the soft Southern strategy, this tactic provided a cover for civil rights obstructionists by arguing the merits of the law instead of the racial politics so often utilized in that day. Rather than stand in a doorway to bar black students from integrating a school, Ervin found legal and constitutional objections to civil rights bills. While the schools of the South were eventually desegregated, the basic principle behind Ervin’s arguments is still heard today: affirmative action and similar legislation treats minorities as a privileged and special class to the detriment of whites. A parallel argument is that social programs are wasteful government spending that creates dependence on “handouts.”
Sam Ervin was a consummate Christian Southern gentlemen, which afforded him with a paternalistic view of his African American constituents (even if they weren’t allowed to vote for him). What he failed to view was the struggle of being black in a white-dominated society, and the resulting consequences on the economic and social well-being of African Americans. Who can say what the effects of substandard education, political disenfranchisement, economic subversion and a history of bondage can have on a group? Ervin’s view, like that of the slave-owning Southerners who preceded him, seemed to have been that African Americans were accepting of their natural place at the bottom of our society, and that as long as white men at the top were good stewards that bore no direct ill-will towards blacks at the personal level, the status quo was the proper order of things.
To see the legacy of Sam Ervin’s soft Southern strategy, one only need look at the 2008 electoral college map. With the exception of Florida and Virginia (which have experienced significant demographic changes) North Carolina stands out as the only “blue state” in the South. I wonder if Sam Ervin , a lifelong Democrat, would have voted for Barack Obama. We have certainly moved forward since Ervin’s day, but I’m reminded of how slow that change can be every time I hear otherwise decent people drop the “n bomb” or make a not-so-subtle statement about how the government wastes money attempting to help (black) people that don’t deserve it. I don’t pretend to know what it is to be black in America, nor do I have a prescription to relieve our cultural and social ills. While I am encouraged by the results of November 4, 2008, my excitement is tempered by the scene outside my door in Southeast Raleigh. Young black men hawking the poisons of the hood all too eager to mete out violence at the end of a barrel.
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