There was a revealing commentary in the News & Observer, about Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, an early progressive hero — and white supremacist. There is a drive to remove his name from prominent buildings.
Politicial writer Rob Christensen’s point is ostensibly that all human beings are products of their times, and must be judged in the context of those times. Aycock lived in a time of racism. We should remember that.
Yet none of that precludes drawing real distinctions. The column tries to blur such distinctions. That’s a rhetorical trick. We shouldn’t fall for it.
For instance, the column compared compares Aycock to Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president had many racial views that we now reject.
But that doesn’t make him precisely the equivalent of Aycock. Aycock was less a bigot than a political operator who did not merely accept the biases of his time, but used them achieve political goals. He and the other progressives stoked racism to defeat their political opponents.
Lincoln on the other hand in many ways triumphed over his prejudices. He steadily grew in sympathy for black people, and he grew more determined to see that they were free. He came to the presidency when black people were enslaved in the South, had few rights in the North, and were losing what rights they had. Using his personal power as president, he emancipated the slaves in the Confederacy, which of course meant the end of slavery when the North won the war. Lincoln led a war that resulted in black people winning the vote and being guaranteed constitutional rights, none of which was even imaginable when he became president. It is absurd to exactly equate Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, with Aycock, who helped put black people into second-class status for decades under the hard hand of Democratic segregationists.
We all are part of our times. Some of us try to move above and beyond them; others sink down into them. Aycock did the second. We shouldn’t try to whitewash that — especially if such a whitewash is merely a way of trying to sanitize the record of progressivism.
The column points to Aycock as a hero of progressivism. And he did lead the drive to build up the public school system. But that bargain included white supremacy as a political tool. He was a leader of a movement that made black people second-class citizens, if only so progressives could build white support for their agenda. We should always remember that.
BTW, another leader of the White Supremacy Movement 0f 1898 was Josephus Daniels, publisher of the News & Observer, also a progressive and a political kingpin of the times. There’s a statue of him across the street from the N&O building. And he’s quoted with admiration every day in the N&O.
Rather than erasing Aycock’s or Daniels’ names, we should remember them. That’s because we need to be reminded how the progressives of their time betrayed black people in order to achieve their other goals, however laudable.
That should spur us to wonder if today’s progressives would betray us. That is, what’s really No. 1 on their list? The well-being of ordinary people? Or climate change or other liberal shibboleths? Today’s North Carolinians should think about that: When liberalism has to make a choice, will it support the ordinary people of this state? Or will it sacrifice them to achieve other goals?