- To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America
With poverty and unemployment at levels unprecedented since the Great Depression, as wages of those with jobs stagnate, as the federal government spends trillions for war and gives tax and bailout subsidies to the ultra-rich, we should be asking ourselves how it got to be this way and what we can do about it. To Right These Wrongs provides many of the answers. Robert Korstad and James Leloudis, two superb scholars, have spent years researching and teaching about the causes and cures for poverty. They have produced a work that is richly informative, immensely inspiring, and deeply disturbing.
One of this book’s strengths is that it provides a powerful historical framework to explain what has gone right and what has gone wrong in America. The history of North Carolina provides a vivid storyline. Throughout the book we repeatedly return to formative influences: the low-wage employer mentality created first by slavery and then perpetuated under segregation, buttressed by a racial system of capitalism that deliberately placed African Americans at the bottom of the economic order, codified their exclusion from politics, and rewarded working-class and poor whites with delusory racial privileges that insured their own deprivation. The “white supremacy” campaigns of the 1890s in North Carolina, based on provoking white fears of black sexuality and political power, eliminated black voters and brought down an iron fence of supposed white skin privilege that undermined interracial labor solidarity among workers, farmers, and poor people. From [End Page 110] the Populist movement to the industrial labor movement, from the distant past to our own era, white supremacy shaped North Carolina’s social structure, politics, and zero-sum-game mentality. Racism cursed a state with great promise, enabling demagogic media commentators and politicians such as Jesse Helms to trash unions, destroy community organizations, and keep white poor people from joining as allies with black poor people. White supremacy weakened democracy and allowed an economic oligarchy to run the state.
The past was prologue. As Korstad and Leloudis remind us repeatedly, white supremacy and racial capitalism shaped the politics of both reactionary conservatism and more enlightened progressivism in state government throughout the early twentieth century. In the 1940s union organizers and left-progressives challenged the old myths and divisive politics of race. Anyone familiar with Korstad’s remarkable history of labor organizing in North Carolina, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South, knows how dramatically African American workers changed their lives through union organizing in that period—only to see a massive assault of red-baiting and race-baiting largely destroy their unions and the promising progressive political impulses of the post-war era. By the 1960s, a certain degree of prosperity spread through a white middle class that especially benefited from the state’s relatively advanced educational and civic institutions. But at the same time, the state suffered from some of the lowest wage rates and highest poverty rates in the country. This book helps us to understand how North Carolina came to be a state of such extremes, a place where middle-class folks can today get the most advanced education in the nation while grinding poverty, illiteracy, and misery remain the lot of so many others.
In 1963, Governor Terry Sanford and a remarkable band of academic activists set out to change this equation by setting up the North Carolina Fund, a privately-endowed and then federally-funded and foundation-funded organization, to study the problem of poverty and ultimately to help poor people organize themselves to end their marginalization and exploitation. Korstad and Leloudis wade through the bureaucratic machinations that made this experiment possible. The Fund surveyed conditions, looked for natural leaders, and created demonstration projects to attack the roots...