Some eight miles west by south of the central North Carolina town of my boyhood, one comes upon red-clay dairy country, furnished with lush pastures and comfortable houses. Hawfields, as the neighborhood is called, dates from colonial times: The route of Cornwallis’s fateful retirement toward Yorktown runs close by. It was the home of W. Kerr Scott, governor of North Carolina from 1949 to 1953 and U.S. senator from 1954 until his death in 1958.
Among mid-20th-century Tar Heel politicians, Scott was arguably the most accomplished, and yet he is the hardest to capture in cold print. But Julian Pleasants is well qualified to portray this elusive maverick, having cowritten the definitive account of a contest for which Scott (unintentionally) provided the sacrificial victim.
That was the troubled Senate Democratic primary of 1950. When the incumbent senator died in office, then-governor Scott plucked from academia an improbable successor, the revered president of the University of North Carolina, Frank P. Graham. Scott had been reading aloud a list of possible appointees when he came to Graham’s name. “Stop there, Kerr,” Mrs. Scott said, according to legend. “He’s your man.” Stop he did—and the embattled liberal forces of the southern United States enjoyed a fleeting moment in the sun. Graham’s candidacy for the remainder of an unexpired term collided with two pivotal Supreme Court decisions that summer, ordering the racial integration of graduate and professional education and railroad dining cars, thus agitating the “race issue” and, not least, arousing the determined opposition of the young Jesse Helms.
The Graham appointment, although brief, was a signature episode of the Scott term. Scott was bent on shaking up a complacent rural state that had been governed for four decades by the proper but conventional Shelby Ring of lawyerly/business-oriented figures. The shakeup was needed. North Carolina had a high rate of illiteracy; it was short of hospitals and health services; its rural schools, black and white, were poor, shabby, and short of competent teachers; and many of its country-dwelling citizens, which made up 60 percent of the population, lacked electricity and telephones and lived on dirt roads that became all but impassable in muddy weather. Getting children to school or produce to market was always a challenge.
Scott’s opponent for governor was the veteran state treasurer Charles Johnson. (Scott himself had served several terms as commissioner of agriculture.) Johnson was a typical representative of the respectable “progressive plutocrats,” as they were memorably called by V. O. Key Jr. in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949). Johnson, although the favorite, had made a fateful blunder, of which he was apparently unaware: As the official custodian of the state’s substantial revenue surpluses, he had farmed money out to more than 230 favored banks—without drawing a dime of interest. The Scott camp came up with the term “lazy money,” and Scott won.
A North Carolina governor of that era confronted three formidable obstacles: He could not succeed himself; he had no veto; and he was easily bullied, then as now, by a hidebound legislature. Johnson’s lax handling of state monies was typical of much that was lethargic in North Carolina’s governance. Scott, making use of accumulated surpluses and bond issues, managed a big boost that launched North Carolina toward the busy high-tech and urban commonwealth it would become. He paved scores of muddy roads, sponsored educational improvements, and led the way to founding the first state medical and dental schools and the wholesale building of hospitals.
Two years after his gubernatorial term ended, Scott won a Senate seat: The incumbent who had defeated Graham in the ugly campaign of 1950 died, and an appointed seat-warmer proved an easy mark. Unfortunately, Scott’s talents were not tailored for the national stage. The rancid politics of race had already begun to obsess the southern congressional delegations. As governor, Scott had resolved to advance the fortunes of North Carolina’s black population and had appointed the first bi-racial state boards. But his progressive instincts were eclipsed, and he began to echo the sullen southern mood—even siding with Orval Faubus in the obstruction of desegregation at Little Rock. His one good idea, in a term abbreviated by his early death at 62, was a “world food bank” that would relieve famine with American farm surpluses. Its like would come, but not in his time.
Julian Pleasants sticks carefully to public matters in this interesting and well-researched book, but he makes slight allowance for the colorful plumage of W. Kerr Scott that generated an abundance of tales.