A North Carolina historian draws a straight line between today’s anti-LGBTQ bills and the “protection” campaigns that ushered in Jim Crow.
Some old ghosts have emerged from the thicket of legislation recently passed by North Carolina’s newly empowered Republican supermajority.
While limitations on abortion have drawn most of the attention, it is the spate of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that best illustrates the links between past and present.
The watchword of this ugly campaign has been “protection.”
The first salvo involved HB 574, which would ban transgender athletes from school sports teams in order to “protect opportunities for women and girls in athletics.” Then came SB 579 (“Prevent Harm to Children”), which threatens to criminalize drag shows in the name of “protecting” young people from “obscenity.” HB 808 (“Youth Health Protection Act”) would deny gender-affirming surgery to North Carolinians younger than 18.
To anyone familiar with North Carolina history, this focus on “protection” has an ominous edge, invoking the white supremacy campaigns of the late 1890s.
In one of the darkest moments of state history, ambitious political leaders manufactured a rape scare that fueled widespread anti-Black violence and then was used to justify decades of separate-and-unequal Jim Crow segregation. Their goal, these leaders claimed, was to “protect” white women and children from unscrupulous Black predators. The lie: Only a tiny fraction of the rapes reported statewide – three out of 42 – were tagged as involving Black men.
As well as sparking violence and justifying inequality, this orchestrated hysteria obscured the real damage being done to North Carolina’s citizens. The white supremacy campaigns that disfranchised most African Americans gave wealthy white men sweeping control over state affairs. The political and economic system they created included not only the injustices of Jim Crow, but a textile manufacturing regime that paid some of the lowest wages in the nation and that compelled countless North Carolina women and children to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in factories filled with heavy machinery and choking lint.
In 1916, when Congress passed legislation designed to limit child labor, North Carolina textile leaders sponsored a successful court challenge, winning a Supreme Court ruling that left it to parents to decide whether 12-year-olds should undertake full-time factory work.
It was this group of men, not the fictional Black predators they created, who did real harm.
Similar patterns are clear today among many of the groups that claim to be “protecting” children.
To take just one example, NC members of the national Moms for Liberty organization have actively supported statewide anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns, planned for protests outside a Charlotte gender-affirming clinic, challenged LGBTQ+ works of literature such as Gender Queer in schools, and voiced their opposition to gender-affirming care for minors, to trans girls and women competing on female sports teams, to drag shows with children present, and to discussion of LGBTQ identity in schools.
The rhetoric of “protection” saturates the group’s work. “Moms for Liberty NC aims to ensure that all materials available in public school settings are free of obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and sexually explicit language and graphics,” one legislative priority reads. “This includes, but is not limited to, materials in classrooms, libraries, curriculum, on-line access, and extracurricular activities. Minors are a protected class and should be free to learn in safe environments without exposure to these adult issues and themes.”
It is clear from the group’s challenges to books and curricula across the state that they intend this prohibition to apply to middle and high school, as well as elementary school.
These scare tactics obscure the many real dangers that threaten North Carolina’s youth. Our state’s young people are intimately familiar with unsafe environments. They participate in active-shooter drills at school. Many live in families that struggle with the destabilizing effects of low wages, housing instability, racism, sexism, and inadequate access to health care. Many also contend with violence, with anti-LGBTQ+ actions, and with sexual exploitation.
For these young people, a safe environment would be a place where they could safely identify, discuss, and explore ways to address these very real experiences—not one where politicians and activists censor what they can talk about.
Young people would also benefit from seeing the state’s powerful Republicans take concrete steps to deal with shortfalls in wages, housing, health care, and racial inequality. Sadly, in keeping with the actions of the textile mill owners who profited from the labor of children, legislators consistently prioritize business interests over residents’ well-being – often with far less fanfare than they give to high-profile cultural issues.
Books, drag shows, and transgender individuals pose no significant threat to our state’s young people, just as Black men posed no significant threat to white women and girls a century ago. If our so-called “leaders” were genuinely interested in protecting children, they would stop frightening voters with manufactured threats and turn to these more important matters.
Pamela Grundy is an independent historian living in Charlotte, North Carolina.