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  • Writer's pictureDavid Gergen

David Gergen to Elon Grads: North Carolina Becoming 'The Poster Child of Backward-Looking Leadership

Gergen departed from the tradition of showering graduates with praise and advice to discuss his concerns about the future of North Carolina, his home state.

May 21st, 2016:

I would like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice. Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk about the deepening concerns that I and many others have about the future of North Carolina, our beloved state.

Repeatedly in recent years, and especially in recent months, forces of political extremism have asserted themselves here, representing a sharp break from our past. After decades of struggle to become a just and fair people, we are sliding backward. We are not only damaging our reputation but putting our fellow citizens at risk.

Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes—white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender; everyone—to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.

Each of you graduates has a personal stake in this fight. It has long been a badge of honor to be a native of this state and to have an Elon degree. Unless we change course, you cannot count on that in the years ahead. More importantly, this country desperately needs your talent, your energy and your leadership to lead us to higher ground.

It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won’t get there without a shove.

I was privileged to grow up in this state and can hardly emphasize how far we had once come toward a better day.

When I was young, this state was dirt poor. Our people earned on average about 71 cents to every dollar earned by other Americans. Our cities were small and insular; our rural areas were dotted with shacks. Our biggest industries, tobacco, textiles and furniture, were starting to die. And the traditions of Jim Crow hung heavily in the air, dividing whites from blacks. For years, the North Carolina Ku Klux Clan was one of the most powerful in the country.

In those days, Duke was still a regional school; UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State had fervent sports fans but were hardly in the top rank academically. Elon was a small college largely unknown.

Going north to college, as I did, classmates thought that if you were from North Carolina, you must be a hick…a hayseed…a redneck. Because you talked slower and maybe walked slower, people thought you must be stupid. It doesn’t always hurt in life—to use a George W. Bushism—to be misunderestimated; still, it always stung.

But then, slowly at first and then rapidly, North Carolina made an historic rise through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Perhaps because I am from Durham, I date the rise from the creation of the Research Triangle Park in the mid-’50s. Enlightened business leaders had the foresight to see that if you built it, they would come.

An even more important turning point came with the 1960 election of Terry Sanford, the John F. Kennedy of the South. He was an electrifying force who drew me and many other young people into public service. Long before other southern leaders, he insisted that blacks, women and others at the margins should have an honorable seat at the table, too. It wasn’t a popular stand—indeed he suffered at the polls—yet he never flinched.

In his wake, influenced by Terry, came other leaders like Bill Friday and Skipper Bowles and more recently Jim Hunt, Dan Blue and, yes, Republican governors like Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. They stood up for a New South, one that honored the rights of all while listening and respecting voices of disagreement. They believed in moderation, reaching across the aisle, building consensus and the importance of good will. North Carolina won the respect of the nation.

But I must tell you that the most credit for our rise as a people belongs elsewhere. It belongs to those courageous young men and women—mostly black, a few white—who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, rode buses into Mississippi, had dogs sicced on them in Birmingham and had their heads bashed in on Pettus Bridge.

We should always be grateful to them for their bravery. They not only pressured us to change our ways, they opened our eyes to the injustices in our midst. Growing up, I remember how often I was told by white elders that black folks liked to live on the other side of town, going to rundown schools and living through indignities. The civil rights movement helped me to see that was a pack of lies.

As Lincoln said about the abolition of slavery, the ending of Jim Crow and the beginnings of this new era were not only good for blacks but for whites, as well. The civil rights movement liberated people of every background to lead more fulfilling, more virtuous lives.

I also believe that when walls started coming down between the races, walls started coming down between North Carolina and the rest of America. A new economy and new society could finally take off.

Companies saw that this had become a good place to call home, to attract employees, to raise families, to pump life into our universities and to unleash a spirit of innovation.

My son Christopher is here, along with his family. From opening start-up hubs in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, Christopher can tell you firsthand how young entrepreneurs are eager to be here in North Carolina, sparking off each other, inventing new businesses, creating new jobs.

We haven’t reached our destination yet. These past few years have been especially tough on working people here. Whites still earn more than blacks, men more than women—particularly professional women. But we are still much better off than we once were.

The average North Carolinian now makes 85 cents for every dollar earned by others, and the dollar goes further due to a lower cost of living; our unemployment rate is below the national average; our universities are now first-class; Charlotte is known as the second biggest banking center in the country; Chapel Hill is one of the best places to live; Raleigh-Durham is abuzz with innovation and Greensboro is emerging as a hot destination for design.

Best of all, we are learning to live together as one people—black or white; male, female or transgender. Our children barely see the differences anymore.

That’s why so many native North Carolinians have proclaimed that we are proud to be from here and others have been proud to bring their families and businesses.

Or at least, that’s where many of us thought we were until just a few years ago.

Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state—the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together—gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.

Let’s be clear: The people elected to state office got there fair and square. They had the gumption to run for public office, and voters chose them to serve. I am sure most of these newcomers also meant well.

But the signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: That North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.

This is not the place to re-litigate each and every issue, but what other message did state legislators intend when they:

  • Seriously restricted access to voting

  • Embraced a constitutional amendment to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians

  • Placed more restrictions on abortion

  • Enacted a flatter tax imposing heavier burdens on the less fortunate and lightening burdens for the wealthy

  • Rejected federal funding for Medicaid and unemployment benefits

  • And cut funds for public schools as well as state universities, our pride and joy.

This is not the North Carolina that we all loved—a North Carolina dedicated to equal opportunity and a growing, inclusive prosperity.

Now, incredibly, we have wandered into a needless fight over the bathroom rights of transgender people. It is hard to believe that we have broken two of the cardinal rules of politics: First, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Second, leave as much power as you can in the hands of local people.

Until now, nothing seemed really broken. In the few instances when problems arose, good folks in places like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh found ways to settle them without fanfare.

But the sudden rush by the state legislature to pass a law imposing a one-size-fits-all solution—and worse yet, a solution that seems to punish transgender people—has made North Carolina the poster child of backward-looking leadership. Now we are in the same headlines as Mississippi.

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