Accounting for where we've been

By Scott Mooneyham | Nov 25, 2013

RALEIGH -- Last spring, a controversy arose about the display of a Confederate flag that hung inside the old state Capitol as part of a commemoration ceremony related to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

After an Associated Press story noted its presence and civil rights groups complained, the flag was removed.

At the time, the story sparked some conversation within the Legislative Building's press room, from reporters born inside and outside of the South.

One point that I attempted to make is how different the North Carolina of my childhood is from current-day North Carolina.

Even a white child who was mostly shielded from the racial strife that swept the South in the 1960s could not help but become aware of and inculcated with the sort of pathos that pervaded the region. You saw the unpainted shotgun shacks, went to school with the raggedy children of tenant farmers.

In our conversation, I recalled reading an interview with Robbie Robertson of The Band and how he saw the same thing, with his fresh Canadian eyes, as he and his bandmates played Southern venues during the 1960s.

Hearing white Southerners repeat the mantra of the time, "The South is going to rise again," Robertson wasn't fooled by the bravado or diverted by any tinges of racism. He heard the sadness, the hollow ring.

And so, a Canadian wrote that anthem of Southern sorrow, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."


Thoughts of that conversation and Robertson's words rolled around my head recently after reading some other words, these from longtime News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen.


Christensen pointed to the source of much of that sorrow, the bone-crushing poverty that was so pervasive in the South and North Carolina 50 years ago.


He wrote about a state that, in 1960, saw half its population drop out of school before graduating high school and where 37 percent lived in poverty.


Christensen's piece focused on the state's efforts to reduce poverty, and how they became a model for some of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.


In the years since, the South and North Carolina did rise, though perhaps not in the way some envisioned in 1960. Southern cities became economic engines and technological hubs, activity that caused huge numbers of people to move here from other states.


Many of them, and now their children, never knew that sorrowful South. Today, it's hard to find, even if, as Christensen wrote, poverty has been creeping upward since 2000.


That economic rebirth was accompanied by civil rights guarantees, desegregation and that expansion of the social safety net.


In today's politically polarized world, liberals accuse conservatives of wanting to turn the clock back to 1960.


A more reasoned interpretation is that conservatives attempt to address a perception that the safety net has grown too large, that it can't be supported based on current resources.


But if that notion doesn't come with an accounting and understanding of where we've been, and where we really are, it may be the thing that goes too far.