How North Carolina went from Klansville, U.S.A. to Obama Blue State

Obama win signals largest crack in solid GOP region

David Cunningham By David Cunningham

Among the many historic precedents set by Barack Obama’s recent campaign, perhaps the most remarkable was his victory in North Carolina one month ago. With the exception of native southerner Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976, no Democratic presidential candidate had triumphed in the state since 1964. More tellingly, during the civil rights period most of the state’s large political rallies were organized not by Republicans or Democrats, but instead by the Ku Klux Klan.

Alabama and Mississippi may have received more press for their militant resistance to changes wrought by the civil rights movement, but throughout the 1960s it was North Carolina that was truly—as the Saturday Evening Post put it—“Klansville, U.S.A.”  That only a generation later, its voters helped to elect our nation’s first African-American president is nothing less than a startling political about-face.

On any given night throughout the mid-1960s, the KKK hosted a rally somewhere in North Carolina. Held generally in cow pastures or local airstrips, these events typically had the feel of a skewed county fair. Arriving cars were greeted by robed klansmen selling small rebel flags and handing out free literature. Spectators could buy food at a concession stand. Various pieces of klan paraphernalia were for sale, and often other items—TVs, toasters, motor oil, fertilizer, even used cars—were raffled off. A five-piece string band would play its repertoire of segregationist tunes to warm up the crowd for the slate of klan speakers. The night always ended the same way, with the ritualized burning of a cross that reached as far as seventy feet into the sky.

These events frequently attracted upward of a thousand spectators. In 1966, a large-scale KKK rally at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium drew a crowd so large that more than two thousand would-be attendees were turned away after the venue’s 3,067 seats were filled.  By that point, membership in the “Carolina Klan” was an estimated 12,000, surpassing the total in all other southern states combined.

Why did the KKK have such broad appeal in North Carolina, a state widely considered the most progressive in the South?  In large part, klan recruitment was aided by the very fact that the state’s politicians maintained a distinctly moderate course. By avoiding the “massive resistance” techniques that resulted in showdowns with federal officials in Mississippi and other southern states, North Carolina politicians successfully promoted the state as a welcoming destination for northern industry and other business interests.

But this willingness to abide by federal civil rights mandates had an unintended, though significant, consequence. Unlike Mississippi, where a wide range of white-controlled institutions were aligned in their efforts to maintain segregation, the klan gained its broad appeal in North Carolina from the very fact that respectable government and civic organizations chose law and order over defiant support of white supremacy. The result was that many of the state’s white citizens—especially those who perceived that integration would result in increased competition for jobs and other resources—rallied behind the only organized segregationist game in town: the Ku Klux Klan.

But while the progressive course charted by North Carolina officials gave rise to a strong klan-led backlash during the 1960s, it also provided the foundation for the changes that culminated in this month’s election results. While the KKK’s rise was matched by its equally rapid fall in the early 1970s, consistent job growth in North Carolina has helped to spur tens of thousands of new residents to migrate to the state. Drastically increased political participation by African-American (and, more recently, Latino) voters, enabled in large part by civil rights activists’ successful efforts to win passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, helped to create a large Democratic-leaning bloc.

Such shifts, of course, have been in process for some time, but were not enough to swing North Carolina toward Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004. But they did provide a foundation for Obama’s success this year. His well-funded and strategically-savvy campaign, combined with his exceptionally strong appeal in communities of color, contributed to his razor-thin margin of victory in the state.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he supposedly declared that the Democratic Party had lost the South for a generation. More than forty years later, Obama’s win in North Carolina signals perhaps the largest crack to date in a solidly Republican region. From “Klansville, U.S.A.” to Obama blue state in forty years—a momentous change indeed.
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