I guess no one in Raleigh has spent more time pouring over a the lore of North Carolina politics than Rob Christensen and if you want to read the best stories about our politicians’ foibles go to the bookstore and buy his book, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.
When the new school board met and hired lawyer Tom Farr as its legal counsel, Rob remembered a story going back fifty years, about how way back in the 1950s Governor Luther Hodges appointed Farr’s senior partner, Tom Ellis, to the Pearsall Commission and put him to work figuring out how North Carolina was going to deal with integration.
Now race is a sticky wicket any time in Southern politics and the further back you go the stickier it gets and back in the 1950s a lot of folks – like Tom Ellis – didn’t cotton to the idea of integration.
In his column Rob went on to tell another story about how, later, Tom Ellis went on to become “North Carolina’s last political boss” shepherding Jesse Helms through his Senate elections and electing Ronald Reagan and John East and Lauch Faircloth and, how, along the way, one time Mr. Ellis landed in hot water because he’d served on the board of a foundation that studied eugenics.
Now that all happened just the way Rob tells it. And he’s got a good (if ironic) point that fifty years ago folks were fighting over integration and now they’re fighting over ‘diversity’.
But there’s another story – about Tom Ellis – that adds to the picture.
Back in 1984, when Senator Helms was running against Jim Hunt, it was Tom Ellis who hired the first African-American – Claude Allen – to work in the Helms organization. And on election night, after Helms defeated Jim Hunt, it was Mr. Ellis who urged Helms to use his victory speech to reach out to African-Americans. And, a few years later in the late 1980’s, it was Tom Ellis who persuaded Jesse to offer Mississippi Civil Rights leader James Meredith a place on his Senate staff.
My point is when it comes to race a lot of Southerners are walking contradictions and if we figure our friends ought to come with round smooth edges and always be consistent – well, more often than not they’re going to throw us a curveball and prove human nature is nothing if not complex.