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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 685

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This is the grave of Terry Sanford.

Born in 1917 in Laurinburg, North Carolina, Sanford grew up as part of the early 20th century well off southern upper middle class. He was an Eagle Scout, which was always a major part of his identity. He went to the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1939. In 1941, he joined the FBI, where he worked for two years before joining the Army as a private. He rose to a lieutenant by the end of the war, having been part of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment that dropped into France and played a key role in the Battle of the Bulge, Sanford was wounded and received a Purple Heart. He left the military in 1946, but joined the North Carolina National Guard, where he served from 1948-60.

Sanford got a job back at UNC after his discharge, as assistant director of the Institute for Government there. He started getting political ambitions and so decided to become a lawyer to help that career along. He moved to Fayetteville to work as a lawyer and he became the head of North Carolina Young Democratic Clubs in 1949. In 1952, he won a race for state senate and served a single term. He mostly remained an insider, but decided to run for governor in 1960. This was an interesting time in North Carolina politics, as the civil rights movement was beginning to transform the state. Sanford’s position on race was as the genteel moderate, someone who was not going to go out of his way to help Black people but someone who was decidedly not Orval Faubus or George Wallace either. He faced a race-baiter in the Democratic primary, all that mattered in the one-party state until that year. His opponent claimed Sanford was a tool of the NAACP, which of course he denied strongly. North Carolina had a fairly sizable middle class that looked askance on the extreme racial violence of Mississippi and Alabama and these were Sanford’s people. They weren’t any more pro-Black than any other whites, but they didn’t want to make a big deal about it. In this race, it was enough for Sanford to win the governorship. He did however only win 54 percent of the vote in the general election, a very low total in a southern state in 1960.

As governor, Sanford’s main platform was transforming North Carolina’s pathetic public education system, which gave less money per student than almost any other state in the country. He had to take to the public to get the extremely conservative North Carolina legislature to pass the taxes that would lead to his plan to raise teacher salaries by 22 percent, among other reforms. This gave him national attention for the first time and he became a rising star in the Democratic Party. He paid a political price for it, as voters started replacing his supporters with Republicans. He also pushed for a state level of what would become the War on Poverty, convincing the Ford Foundation to fund it so he wouldn’t have to ask for more tax increases. This was influential on Lyndon Johnson’s plans after he became president.

Sanford tried to do as little on civil rights as possible, trying to avoid the topic when possible while making cosmetic changes such as naming a few Black professionals to state boards. But then he was faced with the Freedom Riders coming through the state. Basically, he told the state police to make sure that the white mobs did not attack the Freedom Riders, which is of course much more than Alabama was willing to do. Over time, Sanford began to move toward a more civil rights position, which is really a remarkable thing from a southern white governor in 1962. But he realized that racism was at the heart of North Carolina’s poverty and its terrible education system. In early 1963, he became the first southern governor to call for an end to official discrimination in employment. He also denounced the KKK. Certainly, Black activists felt that Sanford was doing far too little for them and really, they were right. He was the classic moderate who made a huge deal over tiny steps that really did not change the equation at all and then he would get very angry when they didn’t credit him for those tiny steps. When James Farmer and Floyd McKissick announced a campaign for total desegregation of Chapel Hill in 1964, Sanford openly denounced them. But by comparison to every other southern governor of the time, well, this is as good as it gets.

There was talk of Kennedy replacing Johnson with Sanford on the ticket in 1964, but, welp. He was not running for a second term that year, but his candidate was defeated because of white anger about civil rights and he blamed the Chapel Hill campaign for it. His political career was basically over. White North Carolina mostly hated him now. He thought about running for the Senate against the segregationist Sam Ervin in 1968 (say what you will about Ervin during Watergate, but he was a horrible racist for his whole career), but realized he had no chance of winning. He had lots of national allies though and agreed to be LBJ’s campaign manager for the 68 election except that then the president dropped out. Humphrey considered Sanford for the VP but chose Ed Muskie instead.

Although he still wanted public office, finding that closed to him, Sanford became president of Duke University. He still decided to run for president from that position in 1972, but this was a dark horse campaign. George Wallace destroyed him in the North Carolina primary and he finished 5th overall in delegates, behind George McGovern, Wallace, Scoop Jackson, and Shirley Chisholm. He then tried to run in 76 but didn’t even make it to the first primaries. He was still at Duke and tried to get the Nixon Library located there in 1981, infuriating faculty there who didn’t want to be associated with their terrible alum (how they feel about Richard Spencer and Stephen Miller today remains unknown). It didn’t work and Nixon established his propaganda museum in Yorba Linda. He retired as president of Duke in 1985.

You’d think Sanford would just go into retirement after he left Duke, but no. Instead, he ran for Senate. And he won. Finally, he was back in government. He served one term and kind of hated it. He was one of these Democrats who thought the deficit was the biggest issue the nation faced, placing him at odds with liberals in the party. He mostly dedicated himself to finding alternatives to Reagan supporting right-wing military dictatorships in Central America, promoting economic development instead. But for a southern Democrat, he was still pretty liberal and went out of his way to oppose the idiotic attempt to put a flag burning amendment in the Constitution. Despite his frustration at Washington, he wanted another term. But his former friend and acolyte Lauch Faircloth, bitter that Sanford had jumped into the race in 86 and bumped him out, became a Republican and worked with Jesse Helms to defeat Sanford. He was also pretty old by this time and was facing health problems. Faircloth beat him pretty easily.

Sanford went back to North Carolina and was still a locally important person, tending to his law practice and working to build an arts complex while also teaching a few classes at Duke. In 1997, he was diagnosed with cancer and he died the next year, at the age of 80.

Terry Sanford is buried in Duke University Chapel, Durham, North Carolina.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1960s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Orval Faubus is in Combs, Arkansas and John Volpe is in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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