That phrase was first applied to Ohio, which often predicts the outcome of presidential races, but it made a lot of sense for NC, too. The Old North Star State, in many ways the new dividing line between the north and the south, and the old south and the new south, NC is a state at the forefront, and for better or worse, has a history of leading the nation. Having spent the last several years researching NC history, particularly the 18th century and NC’s role in the American Revolution, but also the 19th and 20th centuries, I can tell you that what happens in NC matters to the rest of the nation- and later, what we can do about it.
One might say the spirit of rebellion runs deep in NC. Before the American Revolution, there was a War of Regulation- a precursor, almost a practice Revolution, led by a rag-tag group of militia and religious and non, and working people, against taxation without representation, lack of legal redress, and corruption. Governor Tryon raised a militia against the people, banned the Quaker leader Herman Husband, and executed dissenters, some without trial, at the Battle of Alamance. The Regulators failed, but ten years later, the same ideas, and many of the same people, reemerged during the Revolution.
A militia captain under Governor Tryon, Richard Caswell, had seen what the oppression of Tryon had done to the people of NC, and when the Revolution came, he raised and outfitted a regiment of patriots against the Crown. He went on to become the first Governor of NC. The Battle at Moore’s Creek in 1776 was an early win in the war, with about 800 patriots, not all even armed, against an army of 1.5 -2x British. The patriots lit fires and staged a camp away from their actual position to mislead the superior force. They took advantage of the fog to remove half the planks of the creek bridge, and grease the tresses. In the early morning fog, the British marched over the bridge, only to fall in the creek and create a bottleneck, unable to retreat or move forward. Taking advantage of this, the patriots fired a 12-pound canon, which had been dragged by men not horses, straight into the bridge. There were only two casualties on the patriot side, and over 800 British prisoners taken.
It was but one example of NC ingenuity. “Guerilla tactics” were also pioneered by the backwoodsmen of NC. With an inferior force, they staged retreats into the pines, where the riflemen would pick off British officers from behind the safety of the scrub. When they couldn’t win against a superior force, they innovated unconventional war tactics. Had it not been for the strategic defeat/tactical win of Nathanael Greene’s forces at the Battle of Guilford County Courthouse, near present-day Greensboro, NC, the war would have continued well into the 1780s, and likely resulted in a British win. Greene’s forces lost the battle, but they cut off Cornwallis’ supply lines- a crushing blow from which the British never recovered. Unable to beat a conventional army, NC turned to disruption tactics to ultimately route the superior British force. It wasn’t as famous as Valley Forge or Lexington, but it’s entirely possible, likely even, that we’d still be a British colony if not for Cornwallis’ supplies being stopped in NC.
Immediately after the war, North Carolinians started constructing a state. Building on the Halifax Resolves where NC was the first colony to authorize its representatives to declare independence from Great Britain, NC was the last to ratify the Declaration of Independence. Knowing where the Magna Carta had failed some 700 years earlier, NC refused to sign until there was an accompanying Bill of Rights. Those first 10 Amendments, including the right to free speech, press and assembly was a direct result of NC, and treatment North Carolinians experienced before and during the Revolution- Governor Tryon proroguing the Assembly so that it was illegal for representatives to meet, closing printers, the coastal NC tea party, the Sons of Liberty marching in Wilmington and subsequent bans on marches, and the inability to secure lands from seizure or predict taxes, and so on. They also realized the importance of education in all of this, creating the first completely public (later land grant) university system, and the only one to matriculate students in the 18th century.
Moving forward, NC also had some of the harshest slave laws in the country and because of that, NC was also at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. The first Underground Railroad stop was in present day Greensboro, on the edge of the property of Rev David Caldwell- the surgeon-soldier-preacher of the American Revolution. It’s also been said NC had some of the highest rates of AWOL Civil War soldiers, who figured early on that fighting one’s brothers when over 90% owned no slaves, wasn’t worth dying for or leaving fields fallow.
During Reconstruction, NC again led the nation, with dozens of African American statesmen in the House and Senate. Free black villages, like Oberlin, popped up, especially in and around Raleigh, where former slave owners like the Camerons and Stokes gave land to their former slaves and built schools, like the Latta House and St Mary’s. During the Constitutional Convention, NC architects changed Jefferson’s famous words “all men are created equal” to “all people are created equal” — a remarkable bit of foresight some 50+ years before women’s suffrage.
So how did we go from black statesmen to Jim Crow? It was fear. As African Americans were becoming more prosperous, working poor and rich whites felt threatened, and the then-Democratic party managed to coalesce an absolute majority in NC Congress. Plessy v Ferguson was decided in 1896 creating the pervasive precedent of “separate but equal”. The Klan emerged, with its membership peaking in the 1920s. From then until 1970, five million blacks left the south in The Great Migration.
And so it was that in the mid-20th century, a second Reconstruction was born in the movement for Civil Rights. From the 1954 Brown v the Board of Education landmark decision that ruled separate was most definitely not equal, to the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and Massacre, a broad coalition of religious and non-religious blacks and whites came together to fight the status quo. The Wilmington 10, the falsely imprisoned youth were finally freed a decade later, after the people and media exploded the story internationally, forcing President Carter to intervene. NC learned that workers, blacks, feminists, the religious, etc are not a minority when banded together.
In 2010, the US Census showed that more people of African American descent live in the south than anywhere else in the country. There’s been a reverse migration, and cities like Charlotte, NC have black populations of 24+%- higher even than New York City- but we haven’t had that conversation yet. Our representatives aren’t really that representative of us, who we are, what we do, what’s important to us. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the NC General Assembly over the last few years.
In 2012, NC elected the first Republican Governor in 50 years, while at the same time securing an absolute majority in both the House and Senate. This unchecked power, allowed unprecedented changes to occur, including two redistrictings, which were both ruled unconstitutional based on racial gerrymandering, though it will be at least another year before they’re redrawn, making our elections somewhat futile. As Republicans have rightly pointed out, the Democrats gerrymandered before, but never to this extent. Voting rights were also under attack, citing false claims of voter fraud (of over 8M votes, one turned out to be bad)- Souls to the Polls, and other avenues- late and early, Sunday voting, were severely curbed resulting in an 8% decline in African American voting in NC. This was intentional, and bragged about by the NC GOP. At a time when the black population is growing, their votes should not be going down.
The NCGA also hilariously attempted to restructure the board of elections to be headed by democrats during odd years (when there are no elections) and republicans during even years, which is presently held up in the courts. And we cannot forget HB2- the most egregious attack on civil rights- not only for LGBTQ populations, but also to legal redress, and allowing discrimination for numerous groups- that sparked a flurry of similar legislation in other states.
But NC is also the home of the Moral Monday Movement- a broad intersectional coalition led by NAACP and the Reverend Doctor Barber, which has brought together moderates of all parties, workers, feminists, LGBTQ family, Jews, Muslims, Christians, scientists, teachers, politicians and more. This kind of fusion politics is precisely what’s needed to bring about what Barber calls the Third Reconstruction. When the Women’s March in Raleigh expected 10,000 participants this year, 4–8 times that many showed up. Groups like EqualityNC and StrongerNC are bringing together people to fight for healthcare, education, increased minimum wage, political equality, and they’re creating “Run Books” so other groups and folks in other states can start their own from our draft architectures.
One of these efforts to combine education with action is a new nonpartisan series called “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, a Facebook live series premiering Tuesday, May 2 at 7:30pm EDT. The first episode will be an overview like the above to talk about why NC, and then each episode will be focused on a special topic with a special guest, a conversation about gerrymandering, a how to navigate the NCGA, checks and balances, specific pieces of legislation, etc. You’ll get a 20 minute education, with links for more information, and ending with Calls To Action so you can decide how and what, if anything, you’d like to do about it. We hope this series serves to reduce the frustration so many feel when we ask ourselves what we can do, and answers the question, “what does democracy look like?” This is what democracy looks like- you and me, people of all colors, shapes and backgrounds, and political parties, all of us participating in our ways in shaping our own state house and nation.
Several months ago, I was feeling overwhelmed, wondering if anything I did could make a difference, if I could scale into something bigger, and how I could prevent it from being merely my perspective. My friends at StrongerNC, an Indivisible affiliate, took the banner up during a meeting, and it’s as it should be now- a free show, with rotating guests and experts, accessible to all, for all. This is what democracy looks like. I hope you’ll tune in, send us questions and topics, and nominate yourselves or others to be guests. After all, “Y’all means all”.