An Abrupt Reversal

An Abrupt Reversal

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 30-31

Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina, by Julian M. Pleasants and Augustus M. Burns. (University of North Carolina Press, 1990, xv, 356 pp.).

The Republican Party, and especially its southern wing, must be the most ideological major party in American history, and has been becoming so since the Goldwater candidacy in 1964, an overwhelming defeat which transformed a party of inertia into one of generative force.

When Jesse Helms defeated Harvey Gantt in North Carolina’s 1990 Senatorial election the usual explanation was race. That was too simple. The much more formidable fact is that racism is one, but only one, binding strand of modern Republican ideology. If that ideology is strongest in the South it is only that political emotions typically get their exaggerated shape and content here. The Republican Party, nationwide, is committed to military supremacy, the erosion of the strength of labor unions, a deep suspicion of the benefits blacks have obtained through law and a determined resistance to further gain, the same for women and other ethnic minorities, an abiding distrust of and disapproval of the poor, an intolerance of dissenters and an ever-latent intolerance of dissent, a reflexive preference for economic development” over nature, and an embrace of a host of so-called “social issues”–abortion. school prayer, capital punishment, etc.–on which unanimity is exacted. Harvey Gantt lost because Jesse Helms stands foursquare for this ideology and he, Gantt, did not.

Jesse Helms embarrasses many of his Republican brethren by his methods, but in fact he typifies the Party as well as does anyone. If anything, he is better than the generality, as represented by Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush. He is not quite as devoted as they to laissez-faire economics–he is protective of his state’s textile industry, for example–and neither he nor his family seem to get rich.

Jesse Helms was already of importance–how much is a matter of small dispute–in the 1950 election when Willis Smith upset Frank Porter Graham. Two decades later Helms switched parties; I suspect Smith would have done the same. Pleasants and Burns in their solid and highly valuable study subject the election and its results

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to close analysis, and conclude that the decisive factor was Smith’s use of race. (Smith let campaign workers do most of his dirty campaigning for him, but that need not to be taken seriously in ascribing responsibility.) Pleasants and Burns thus put less weight than has been customary on the Red tag and other smears that Smith’s campaign sought to hang on Graham. Their evidence is persuasive. In the first three-man primary, when such had been abundant, Graham came within an eye-lash of winning a clear majority 48.9 percent. The authors do not speculate on whether the smears of the first campaign may not have deprived Graham of a clear majority. Only one month later, Smith beat him 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent. What took place in that month was utter concentration on racial issues and on Graham’s strong convictions for racial justice.

1950 was at the beginning of the formation of the modern southern–later, modern Republican–ideology. The post-war South had shown signs of a newly liberal politics. Men such as Kerr Scott of North Carolina, Arnall of Georgia, Folsom, Hill, and Sparkman of Alabama, Fulbright and McMath of Arkansas, Kefauver of Tennessee, and Pepper of Florida were winning gubernatorial or U. S. Senate seats. The end of the decade brought an abrupt reversal. The thin margin by which Francis Pickens Miller’s effort failed in Virginia in 1949 to set back the Byrd machine, Claude Pepper’s loss in Florida to the smears of George Smathers, and Frank Porter Graham’s defeat in North Carolina all showed that even reputedly progressive southern states were ready to follow into the “closed society” of the next fifteen or so years where the Talmadge resurgence in Georgia had already led.

Pleasants and Burns have brought back for our study and reflection one of the first stages in that snarling retreat of the South into “massive resistance.” For its recovery, the South would require the heroics of the civil rights movement and (let those of us who damned him for Vietnam acknowledge) the leadership of Lyndon Johnson. The election was a first also in its tragic importance, for the one who lost it, Dr. Graham, was among the South’s and the country’s best, ever.