Rob Christensen is a retired political journalist and columnist for The News & Observer and the author of the new “The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys: North Carolina’s Scott Family and the Era of Progressive Politics” (UNC Press). The book, which will be released May 13, traces the history of the Scott family in North Carolina over the 20th century. It features Gov. and U.S. Sen. Kerr Scott, his son Gov. Bob Scott and Bob Scott’s daughter, Meg Scott Phipps, who was elected agriculture commissioner in 2000 before going to prison for campaign finance violations.
Here is an excerpt of the book.
Gov. Kerr Scott was riding high when he arrived in the coastal town of New Bern to speak to the Young Democrats Club convention in September 1949. During his first nine months in office, Scott had launched a transformative road-building program, begun a major school construction effort, improved teacher salaries, pushed for extending electricity and telephone service to the countryside, and supported ongoing efforts to improve health care in the state. He had also shown himself an ally of blacks, women, and organized labor. He voiced support for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution for women and stood up to powerful corporations that ran the state.
In the process, Scott had outraged conservatives by naming liberals to high posts, whether it was an African American to the State Board of Education, the former press secretary of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as the state’s Democratic National Commiteeman, or Frank Porter Graham, the president of the University of North Carolina and the South’s leading liberal, to the U.S. Senate.
Kerr Scott’s accomplishments were also in service to the grooming of future generations of Democratic progressives like those in the Young Democrats Club at New Bern, who gathered to hear him speak. The YDCs elected as their chairman Terry Sanford, a 32-year-old Fayetteville attorney who would become Scott’s heir apparent. Soon, a 15-year-old Jim Hunt, another future governor, would be ushered into Scott’s office to have his photograph taken with the governor.
Kerr Scott’s own family would be part of the rural progressivism, too. His son Bob would follow him as governor; his brother, Ralph, would become one of North Carolina’s most influential state lawmakers; his daughter-in-law would run for labor commissioner and lobby for the ERA; and his granddaughter would be elected agriculture commissioner.
Speaking to about 300 Young Democrats after a barbecue supper at the Trent Pines Club, Kerr Scott said that North Carolina’s future rested in the hands of a “liberal Democratic Party.” He warned the Young Democrats to avoid “getting yourself lined up with conservatism. ... Let us be an aggressive, progressive people.” The Democratic Party should avoid putting any hindrance in the way of developing every resource. To return to conservatism would mean reestablishing “new breeding grounds for Republicanism.”
No statewide opinion polls were conducted in those days, but there can be little doubt that Kerr Scott had a large and loyal following.
“There never was a time in the history of our state when there was a general ‘shaking up’ of the machine rule rottenness as at this time,” wrote C.C. Burns from the small Pender County town of Atkinson. “The late governor and senator Huey Long did the same for Louisiana, bucking the Standard Oil Co., along with the rest to build a new state, along with the confidence of the people of that state. ... We are with you, 100 percent, Governor, and are expecting, like the people of Louisiana referred, to send you on up to the U.S. Senate.”
Burns’ enthusiasm was echoed by Harry Golden, editor of the Charlotte-based Carolina Israelite, who wrote in a letter to Kerr Scott: “I think that you are the first major political figure in the South, since the days of Reconstruction, who could conceivably receive the vote of the Lower East Side in New York, the Black Belt in Chicago, and the trade unionists of Pennsylvania and Ohio.”
Among Scott’s other admirers was Raleigh radio reporter Jesse Helms. In an “off the record” letter to the governor, Helms wrote, “I think the present governor of North Carolina ought to set his cap for an even greater achievement. Our present governor, as far as I am concerned, is the first North Carolinian in my life time who has had the vision and the ability to become president of the United States. And he may represent North Carolina’s only chance for that honor in my life time. Won’t you have a heart-to-heart talk with the governor in the hopes that he may set his cap for that accomplishment? This is the political era of the ‘Little Man.’ You have a way of getting along with the little man. Make the most of it.” It was signed, “Admiringly, Jesse.”
The North Carolina of 1949 was a far different place than the one today. It was among the most agrarian states in America, with two-thirds of the population living in areas officially designated as rural. The population was overwhelmingly composed of Tar Heel natives, and Charlotte, the largest city, was home to 134,930 people. The Sun Belt migration was decades in the future.
But Kerr Scott, a rough-hewn dairy farmer from Haw River, helped foster a brand of rural progressivism that burnished North Carolina’s reputation as among the most moderate and forward-looking in the South. As a result, for much of the second half of the 20th century, North Carolina was led by Kerr, his son Bob, and their political allies, such as Terry Sanford, a lawyer from the small farming community of Laurinburg, and Jim Hunt, who grew up on a dairy farm outside Rock Ridge.
This was redeye-gravy progressivism — not big-city liberalism. Scott called his supporters “Branchhead Boys,” or those rural residents born at the head of a creek or branch. The movement was born among some of the nation’s poorest, most isolated farmers, nurtured in country churches, and powered by agriculture movements such as the Farmers’ Alliance and the North Carolina Grange, which welded the highly individualistic farmers into a single voice.
When unleashed, the rural progressivism could erect great universities, build vast road networks, create new ports, force the utility companies to extend electricity and telephones into the countryside, and build housing for the poor. During Kerr Scott’s term as governor, many rural North Carolinians saw government as a vehicle for improving their lives.
But at every step of the way, this rural progressivism was confronted by a deeply ingrained conservatism — much of it emanating from those same fields and church pews. On the inflammatory question of racial equality, in particular, there was often a reactionary pushback.
Well before Kerr Scott’s time, during the Farmers’ Alliance and Populist push of the 1890s, the first wave of rural progressivism faced opposition in the form of the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900. Likewise, Kerr Scott’s Populist Go Forward program led to the racially charged Smith-Graham Senate campaign in 1950.
And when his son Bob became governor, many came to distrust governmental power, especially when it came to forced racial integration of the public schools. Bob Scott’s term as governor, from 1969 to 1973 — with its rise of black activism — led to the election of sharply conservative Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate.