Inside Politics

Race central issue in labor commissioner fight

Monday, July 16, 2012

A decades old document that some considered progressive when it was written has become a central issue in the Democrat runoff election for North Carolina Commissioner of Labor.

Democrats John Brooks and Marlowe Foster are vying for the nomination to take on incumbent Republican Cherie Berry in the fall.

The contest pits a newcomer verses an old hand at politics. Brooks has held the labor position before. He served as commissioner from 1977-1993.

Foster has attempted to use Brooks' experience against him, pointing to a pamphlet he helped put together for Governor Terry Sanford titled "North Carolina and the Negro" in 1964.

"This kind of document and this kind of thinking needs to be put on the shelf permanently," Foster offered in an interview with ABC11.

But Brooks isn't ashamed of what he helped publish nearly 50 years ago. Instead, he's proud of it.

"It is an account of North Carolina's non-violent response to the Afro-American protests that were going on during Governor Terry Sanford's administration," he explained.

But the pamphlet makes some statements that easily raise eyebrows in the 21st Century. For example, it says of African Americans that "few of the race are pure blooded." And, "his characteristics derive from blood strains of masterful men of other races."

"He has put it on his website as part of his resume and part of his proud accomplishment.  I don't see how saying someone has impure blood and is a descendent of masterful men is something to be proud of," said Foster.

So to get some perspective, we took the document to Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy, who is the director of the African American Cultural Center at NC State.

"It tries to explain to a white audience who black North Carolinians are," said McKoy.

Smith McKoy told us that by 1964 standards, against the backdrop of the Dixicrat movement, the book was progressive, even bordering on radical.  But, she said the language does beg questions about Brooks' attitudes on race today.

"One might wonder if these issues have been dealt with in his own life, in his own understanding of where we are as a racial country, at this time," she said.

Brooks is unapologetic.

"It's a part of me. I don't think it's baggage at all," he explained.

Brooks also said he only edited the pamphlet, and he didn't write the language.

"General Capus Wayne wrote that paragraph," he said. "Whatever it says, I wasn't in a position to rewrite anything that Terry Sanford or Capus Wayne wrote.

Still, Brooks stands by the document, saying it was progressive at the time, and helped steer North Carolina through the often violent turmoil of the civil rights movement.

"It is an account of North Carolina's non-violent response to the Afro-American protests that were going on during Terry Sanford's administration," said Brooks. "This is the story of how that was achieved and the success of it in North Carolina."

Foster disagrees.

"I don't buy into the fact that it's a progressive document and I take offense to that frankly," he said. "The North Carolina of 2012 is very different than when he was labor commissioner back in the 70s and writing this stuff back in the 60s.  I think that's the very point," said Foster.

While both men would likely agree the state is in a very different place from 1964, Foster would say there's still need for change, while Brooks would say the pamphlet shows that what he's been doing has been working.

The Democratic runoff election is Tuesday.

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