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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 823


This is the grave of Sam Ervin.

Born in 1896 in Morganton, North Carolina, Ervin would sum up the complexities and contradictions of many southern politicians in the twentieth century. He went to the University of North Carolina, graduated in 1917, and then went to war. He saw real combat in France and received two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. He then went to Harvard for law school. For some reason, he did the classes in backwards order, starting with the third year classes and then ending with the first year. He liked to joke about this. He actually passed the bar before he graduated from Harvard.

Ervin didn’t have much interest in practicing law though. For him, law was the entryway into politics. And that was his passion. Now, this is a Democrat from North Carolina in the 1920s. Was he a white supremacist? You bet he was. In fact, Sam Ervin was always a white supremacist. For whatever he did later, let’s not forget that this is how he rose and he never apologized for it. He was sent to the North Carolina statehouse while at Harvard and was elected to terms in 1922, 1924, and 1930.

In that time between his second and third terms, he was the attorney for Burke County, North Carolina. In 1927, a young Black man named Broadus Miller was accused of killing a white girl who worked in a mill. It’s possible that he did; he had served a three-year sentence earlier for killing a Black woman with a baseball bat and he was considered to have severe mental illness. In any case, rather than bring Miller to justice, Ervin helped the county just lynch him. In his role as county attorney, he declared Miller an outlaw, which in the state constitution gave anyone the right to kill the person. There were lynch mobs left and right seeking out Miller. A member of the sheriff’s posse finally killed him and then they displayed his body in the county square for all to see. Sam Ervin is hardly the only villain in this story, but a villain he absolutely was.

This story only bolstered Ervin’s political reputation. He went back to the statehouse for awhile, but then became a judge. He rose in that world. By the 1950s, he was on the North Carolina Supreme Court. In 1954, Clyde Hoey, who represented the state in the Senate, died. Ervin got the appointment to replace him. This was of course right as Brown v. Board of Education was being decided. And it will not surprise you that Ervin was vociferously opposed to that case and any other methods of desegregation. It’s true enough that he did not personally use racebaiting language, but who cares. If that’s what it takes to make you one of the “good” southern senators, that’s not an acceptable standard. He might have been a polite man about it, but he was as racist as anyone in the Senate. Ervin led the resistance to desegregation in the South, helping to draft the Southern Manifesto that said Brown was unconstitutional, a violation of the Tenth Amendment, and urged massive resistance.

In all of this, Ervin attempted to claim, or at least his later defenders have, that he was the ultimate originalist, to use a modern term. In other words, because the Founders believed the nation belonged to white men, then it did and should not be changed. Somehow, he also believed the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment also only applied to white men. The mental gymnastics that claim takes boggle the mind. Of course he went on to oppose the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, seeing them as unconstitutional expansions of federal power, by which he meant allowing the Blacks to vote.

Ervin also didn’t like immigrants. Worried about the threat of non-whites to white America, he strongly supported the maintenance of strict quotas on immigrants that replicated America’s white past and thus opposed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that revamped the American immigration system and allowed large numbers of Asians and Africans and Latin Americans into the nation for the first time. On top of this, he was also a super sexist guy who strongly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, even when it looks sure to pass. Like lots of conservatives, he worried about the horror of our nice American girls being drafted to go fight in wars. He tried to amend the ERA to exempt women from the draft and when that failed, helped work the North Carolina legislature not to ratify it.

So yeah, Ervin was pretty bad on race and gender. On the other hand, outside of his racism, he was pretty good and this is of course the paradox of the liberal southern politician. Like William Fulbright or Albert Gore or Hugo Black, Ervin took brave liberal stances on issues that did not seem to threaten white supremacy. From the very beginning of his time in the Senate, he opposed Joseph McCarthy’s redbaiting campaigns, even though it was probably in his political interest to keep quiet about that. He had a very real and genuine belief in civil liberties. He played the leading role in defeating Everett Dirksen’s proposed Constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools. He opposed lie-detector tests and other new police technologies that could entrap the accused. He lambasted no-knock searches. Basically, he was one of the biggest defenders of the Fourth Amendment the nation has ever had. On the other hand, Ervin did oppose almost the entire Great Society based on his belief that it was a big violation of civil liberties.

And then of course there was Ervin’s true shining hour: the Watergate hearings. Ervin hated Nixon already. He was furious when he discovered in 1970 that the Army was investigating civilians for security purposes and started holding hearings. This helped lay the groundwork for the Church Committee and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. So when the Watergate hearings started, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield selected Ervin to chair the Senate Watergate Committee. There were good reasons to choose him. He was old and respected. He was already leaning toward not running for another term in 1974, meaning no one could accuse him of gratifying his own personal presidential ambitions here. And because he was politically conservative on social issues, he could not be portrayed as the head of a liberal cabal seeking to take down the president. In fact, Nixon was happy when he heard Ervin was Mansfield’s choice, hoping that the senator would be on his side. Uh, no.

I’ve posted this before, but watching Ervin’s aw-shucks southern front just raking John Ehrlichman over the coals is one of the great moments of televised American history.

Have to give Ervin credit during Watergate. He really put the screws to the crooks.

Ervin indeed did choose to retire in 1974 and in fact didn’t even bother serving out the last month of his term, resigning in December. In the aftermath, he combined a return to the law with cashing in on his fame. Even while he was getting famous over Watergate, he was doing that, releasing the 1973 album Senator Sam at Home that included his cover of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” I once saw this album in a record store and I still kick myself for not buying it, just to trot it out as a prop every now and again.

Ervin died in 1985, at the age of 88.

Sam Ervin is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Morganton, North Carolina.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions, off my trip back in January to the South. Many thanks!! If you would like this series to visit more senators who were on the Senate Watergate Committee, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Daniel Inouye is in Honolulu and Joseph Montoya is in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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