Mark Robinson and his rivals

Published May 18, 2023

By Thomas Mills

“We don’t need the climate of hate that [he] is talking about. We don’t need the climate of hysteria and fear that [he] proposes.” Mark Robinson? No, I. Beverly Lake, a now-forgotten intellectual racist who confronted Terry Sanford in the 1960 primary for governor. Robinson is I. Beverly Lake’s political heir, and his election to the Executive Mansion would vindicate the bigotry that Lake attempted to foist upon state government as integration loomed ahead.

This may sound incendiary given that Robinson is Black, but the racial difference between yesterday’s segregationist and today’s gay-hater pales beside the two men’s deep similarities. In fact, Robinson recently declared the Civil Rights Movement an historical error that resulted in “so many freedoms” being “lost.” Robinson is the 21st-century culmination of 3.5-centuries’ trafficking in political hatred. And it’s a testament to the deep resilience of bigotry in our polity that a populist such as Robinson has a fairly solid chance of becoming governor.

The roots of Robinson’s candidacy run to the tainted origins of our state. Over its first two centuries, North Carolina evolved from a “society with slaves” to a slave society. By the eve of the Civil War, the state’s ruling Democratic Party based nearly its entire campaign message upon white racial supremacy. Racial hatred would form the underlying embers of the state’s heated politics until the present day. No issue, from women’s suffrage to welfare reform, would come to the fore without inspiring racial feeling.

Racism has, however, been stigmatized. Coded appeals around “voter fraud” and “school choice” remain widespread in North Carolina politics, but the outlet for raw cultural animus has shifted from race to LGBTQ identity. Enter Mark Robinson. A political novice with little to distinguish him on the merits, Robinson has built an avid following among Republicans by denigrating LGBTQ people as “filth.”

Robinson’s political career has played out at fundamentalist pulpits and other forums were hostility to LGBTQ people is endemic. He’s never flinched from his bigoted self-presentation. In fact, Robinson has long understood that a raw and inflammatory style has many adherents in North Carolina. The bigotry of right-wing evangelicals elected conservatives ranging from Furnifold Simmons (the “Great White Chieftain”) to Jesse Helms (“Senator No). North Carolina will tolerate far too much bigotry in its politics.

But this tolerance is not without limits. Returning to 1960, the nervous Robinson critic should note that I. Beverly Lake lost the primary to Terry Sanford. It was, to quote journalist John Drescher, “a triumph of good will,” and it inaugurated 50 years of progressive North Carolina governance. The stakes of next year’s gubernatorial election are the highest since Lake failed to build a wall of massive resistance around the state. Hope still flickers in a state that has seen its government take a savage reactionary turn.