'Fair Representation is Essential to Democracy'

By Raymond Wheeler

Vol. 4, No. 2, 1982, p. 10

I am a physician, a native of North Carolina, practicing in Charlotte. I speak today as a citizen of the state interested in fair and open government and equal opportunity for all people in the state. I speak also as a member of the Southern Regional Council, a group of Southerners both black and white which, for nearly 40 years, has pursued similar goals for all of the Southern region. The Council has done important research into patterns of citizen participation in the governing of North Carolina.

Since the turn of the century, when it was one of three Southern states that refused to hold a constitutional convention to disenfranchise blacks, North Carolina has maintained a separate identity in the Southern history of race relations and an almost singular reputation for fair dealings with its black citizens. We have a reputation for moderation and we deserve full credit for the accomplishment of self-restraint during the long years of turmoil and violence that marked the times before and during the Civil Rights Movement and during the painful period of adjustment to desegregation.

This reminds me of a statement made several years ago by John Seigenthaler, editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean at a meeting on Southern politics. "For decades," he said, "Southerners of good will have pleaded for moderation. And, finally, it has arrived. Now that we have got it, God save us from it." While allowing for a little Southern hyperbole, the sentiment is appropriate to the paradox of North Carolina's moderation in race relations while we have been most effective in belittling the voting strength of a sizable black population.

It is certainly no surprise that the Justice Department has disapproved the plans of North Carolina for redrawing both congressional and legislative districts. All three plans have contained the same obvious flaw and they dilute the voting strength of North Carolina's black residents by assuring them minority status in almost every district.

According to the 1980 census, of the 15 states with the highest percentage of black population, North Carolina has the smallest percentage of blacks in the legislature. Thirteen of those states elected at least one house of their legislatures entirely from single member districts. Twenty-two percent of all North Carolinians are black. The membership of this general assembly is 2.3 percent black!

North Carolina has the lowest percentage of black legislators of the seven states with black populations of 20 percent or greater. The national average per state is 12 percent black population and 4.2 percent black legislators.

Among the Southern states covered by the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina is second from the bottom in the percentage of all black elected officials. Statewide, 4.7 percent of our elected officials are black. For the record, in 1968 the percentage was 0.18.

I do not report these figures in order to argue that the percentage of black elected officials or black legislators should necessarily correspond precisely with the percentage of black population. However, the comparison is a bench mark of black participation in government and an indicator of how much progress is yet to be made.

The unavoidable conclusion is that in spite of a steady increase in black registration and voting in North Carolina, there is widespread and massive under-representation of black voters in the political affairs of the state. Whether by the design of political leadership or by prejudice of white voters, blacks have been denied the opportunity to participate in the process which determines how we are governed. So long as that is true, there can be little accountability or fair, open decision making in government.

Representative government for blacks is also important for whites. Unless the primary obstacles to full participation in the electoral process are removed, public confidence in government, citizen access to government, and public accountability of government officials will be unreached goals for both black and white citizens.

I am asking the General Assembly to face squarely and honestly the notion that a fair system of representation is essential to democracy. If you do that, you must agree that blacks need more representation in government and you must come down unequivocally in support of an electoral system based on single member districts throughout our state.

Legislatures in thirty states are already elected from single member districts including Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.

Single member districts provide a wider diversity of interests in the legislature. Voters have clearer choices. Legislators have more responsive and loyal constituencies while at the same time the legislator is required to be more accountable.

Single member districts provide each of us with a sense of a greater stake in the responsibilities of government. There is no way that North Carolina can fail to emerge from such a process except as a stronger, more unified state in which needs will be met and problems will be solved.

The late Raymond Wheeler, a former president of the Southern Regional Council, made these comments to a North Carolina legislative committee on redistricting on Feb. 4, 1982.