The political saga of a father and son
By D.G. Martin
Anyone who wants to master North Carolina political history must try to understand how Kerr Scott, elected North Carolina’s governor in 1948, could be both a liberal and a segregationist. Two books that can help are The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott: The Squire from Haw River, by retired University of Florida professor Julian Pleasants; and The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys, by former News & Observer political reporter and columnist Rob Christensen.
Pleasants chronicles the exceptional life of Kerr Scott, who was governor from 1949 until 1953 and U.S. senator from 1954 until his death in 1958.
Scott, a dairy farmer from Alamance County, won election as commissioner of agriculture in 1936. In 1948, after using that office as a launching pad, he resigned and mounted a campaign for governor. He beat the favored candidate of the conservative wing of the party in the Democratic primary, which in those days was tantamount to election.
Once in office, Scott pushed programs of road paving, public school improvement and expansion of government services. Hard-working and hard-headed, plain and direct spoken, he appointed women and African-Americans to government positions.
Future governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt were inspired by his success. Hunt said, “If not for Kerr Scott I would never have run for governor. My family viewed Scott as our political savior. … He improved our roads, our schools, and our health care.”
Scott’s commitment to common people, fair treatment for African-Americans, skepticism and antagonism toward banks, utilities and big business, and a pro-labor platform earned him a liberal reputation that was praised in the national media. In 1949, he appointed Frank Porter Graham, the popular and liberal president of the University of North Carolina, to fill a vacant seat in U.S. Senate. When Graham lost to conservative Willis Smith in the next election, Scott resolved to run against Smith in 1954 to avenge Graham’s loss and reassert the power of the liberal wing of the party. When Smith died in office and Governor William Umstead appointed Alton Lennon, a conservative, to the seat, Scott ran against him in 1954 and won.
In the Senate, his liberalism did not extend to racial desegregation. He joined with other Southerners in Congress to fight against civil rights legislation. He signed the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto, which urged resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring the elimination of school segregation.
Scott died in office in 1958, leaving open the question of whether he would have won re-election in 1960.
Missing from Pleasants’ excellent book is the story of the entire Scott family and its role in North Carolina political life. Christensen takes up that task. He follows the Alamance County farm family beginning with Kerr Scott’s grandfather, Henderson, and his father, “Farmer Bob.” Both were active in statewide farmers’ organizations.
Christensen’s important contribution to the Scott family saga is his account of the political career of Kerr’s son, Bob. Born in 1929, Bob grew up on Kerr’s dairy farm. Like his father, he became active in farm organizations and worked in political campaigns, including Terry Sanford’s 1960 successful race for governor. By 1964, at age 35, he was ready to mount a statewide campaign for lieutenant governor. But two senior Democrats, state Sen. John Jordan and House Speaker Clifton Blue, were already running. Christensen writes, “In some ways Scott had broken into the line.”
Nevertheless, with the help of powerful county political machines, he won a squeaker victory in a primary runoff over Blue.
Bob Scott used his new office to run for the next one, giving hundreds of speeches each year, and he won the 1968 Democratic nomination over conservative Mel Broughton and African-American dentist Reginald Hawkins.
The results of the 1968 presidential contest in North Carolina marked what Christensen calls “the breakup of the Democratic Party.” Richard Nixon won; George Wallace was second; and Hubert Humphrey was third. Nevertheless, in the governor’s race, Scott faced and beat Republican Jim Gardner.
Mountains of bitter controversies in the areas of race, labor, student unrest and higher education administration were to confront Bob Scott after he became governor of North Carolina in 1969. As governor, Scott followed his father’s tradition of inviting friends to “possum dinners” with the main possum course accompanied with “barbecued spareribs, black-eyed peas, collard greens, bean soup with pig tails, corn bread, and persimmon pudding.”
Christensen writes, “Scott may not have been the populist of his father, but he brought a common-man approach to Raleigh.”
But times had changed. College campuses were erupting. Black anger was spilling into the streets. Historian Martha Blondi wrote that 1969 marked the “high water mark of the black student movement.” Christensen writes, “During his first six months in office, Scott called out the National Guard nine times to deal with civil unrest.”
In March, he sent more than 100 highway patrolmen to Chapel Hill to break a food worker strike and force the reopening of the student cafeteria, overruling the actions of UNC’s president, William Friday, and the chancellor, Carlyle Sitterson. This action and similar strong measures against student-led disorders earned Scott praise by television commentator Jesse Helms and many others in the white community, “but he got different reviews from the black community.”
Although he appointed the first black District and Superior Court judges, his pace of minority hiring and appointments was roundly criticized.
Increased desegregation of public schools resulted in more disruption. Speaking about the 1971–72 school year, Scott said, “Many schools were plagued by unrest, tension, hostility, fear, disturbances, disruptions, hooliganisms, violence and destruction.”
In response to disturbances relating to school desegregation in 1971, Scott sent highway patrolmen and National Guard troops to Wilmington. Conflict there led to arrests, trials and prison sentences for the group of protesters who became known as the Wilmington Ten.
Bob Scott’s stormy relations with President Friday continued as Scott “decided to undertake the reorganization of higher education as his political swansong.” His proposal to bring all 16 four-year institutions under one 32-person board was adopted by the legislature. Scott expected the new organization would eliminate or minimize Friday’s role. But Friday became president of the reorganized 16-campus system and led it until 1986.
Summing up Bob Scott’s time in office, Christensen writes that his legacy is “far murkier” than his father’s, in part because the state was “less rural, less poor, more Republican, and more torn by societal dissent, whether civil rights, Vietnam, or the counterculture.”
Both Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt acknowledged their connection to Kerr Scott. But Bob Scott never bonded with either of them. The breach with Hunt became a public battle when Bob Scott challenged the incumbent Gov. Hunt in the 1980 Democratic primary. Scott was angry because Hunt had not supported his ambition to be appointed president of the community college system. Scott lost the primary to Hunt by a humiliating 70–29 percent margin.
Ironically, in 1983, when the community college presidency opened up again, Bob Scott won the job and served with distinction until his retirement in 1995.
Bob Scott died in 2009 and was buried at the Hawfields Presbyterian Church near the graves of his father and grandfather. Kerr Scott’s tombstone reads, “I Have Fought a Good Fight . . . I Have Kept the Faith.” Bob’s reads, “He Also Fought a Good Fight and Kept the Faith.” SP
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m.