The Struggle for Civil Rights Goes On in North Carolina

In 1963, my father received a letter from the governor of North Carolina. He would have his two year prison sentence commuted if he left North Carolina. . . forever.

My dad was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  Early in his time there, he was appalled to see the institutional racism at restaurants and community centers around the university town.  So he became a student of the non-violent protest movement, and helped to organize a Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter for students in the region.  After some early success, my dad was sentenced to two years in prison for trespassing on federal property by a judge who saw an opportunity to deal with a leading agitator.  After months of serving a term that included stints in solitary confinement and hard labor on chain gangs, leaders at UNC negotiated his release on one condition: banishment from the state.  He never returned.

Racial discrimination is now banned under the law in North Carolina and the rest of the country. But a new North Carolina law that codifies discrimination against transgender people is a potent reminder that the fight to ensure equal rights for all Americans is as crucial as ever.

I’ve spent a lot of time in North Carolina in my work for Google. While there, I attended a reunion of those involved in my father’s work, having powerful conversations with people who shared stories of his efforts and celebrated the movement’s successes.  On more than one occasion we joked that were my father was still alive, we would have had to sneak him in over the border.   

Thanks to the work of inspired progressive leaders, the Tar Heel state is now a center of innovation, education, diversity and technology.  But over the past several years, the politics of the Tar Heel state has changed from optimistic and forward-looking to fearful and divisive. This new law, which was passed at “emergency” speed, is particularly nasty in that it specifically overrides the actions of local governments, like the city of Charlotte, that had chosen to provide protections for their LGBT citizens.  

Many have rightly condemned this law as discriminatory and harmful, including over 80 private companies and our own governor.  I am proud that the state of Vermont has banned all non-essential travel by state personnel to North Carolina until this situation is rectified.  I commend Governor Shumlin for taking action and encourage other leaders around the United States to do the same.  As Dr. King famously said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But we should recognize two things.  First, there is still injustice all over America for LGBTQ persons. It is still perfectly legal in 28 states to fire an employee just for being gay. Ordinances regarding bathroom use like the one that Charlotte passed (before the North Carolina legislature overruled it) are rare and when proposed are often defeated, as one was in Houston last November.  State legislatures across the country are debating and often passing so-called religious liberty protections that are code for anti-gay discrimination.  Just this week the governor of Georgia vetoed such a law only after huge public pressure.

Second, Vermonters should remember that our own fight over civil rights, including the “take back Vermont” movement, is not far behind us.  Donald Trump, a man who hesitated to disavow white supremacists and repeatedly slandered minority groups, got the votes of nearly 20,000 Vermonters on his way to winning the GOP primary earlier this month.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we must continue the fight for equality and justice for all people in our country.  Vermont has been and must remain a leader in the effort. That starts with our home state.  Please click here to read my policy on furthering LGBTQ equality in Vermont