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Charlotte's Harvey Gantt: It's 'Hard To Believe We Find Ourselves In This Place' After Capitol Violence

Clemson University Library
Harvey Gantt stands on the steps of Sikes Hall on the day he entered Clemson University as its first Black student in 1963.

On this holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Americans are reflecting on King’s legacy and the divisiveness of the country, especially given the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol more than a week ago.

In his famous 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King wrote that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” These are indeed challenging times that have many in the country wondering how we move forward as a nation. It’s a question former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt has thought about over the years, including when he was the first African American to attend Clemson University and when he lost in a tight race for the U.S. Senate in 1990 that was racially charged.

WFAE "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn talked with Gantt about past challenges he endured — and the challenges the nation faces today, as armed protests are threatened during President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Gwendolyn Glenn: What was going through your mind as you watched the insurrection unfold at the U.S. Capitol?

Clemson University
Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt

Harvey Gantt: At the time that this was occurring, I was actually on the highway. My wife and my grandson were in the car with me. And I had been listening to some interesting speeches by members of Congress who were there, of course, for the purpose of certifying the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And my grandson, who had access to his cellphone, shows me this picture of people climbing the Capitol wall. That reminded me of a movie — of someone reaching, overcoming some enemy on the other side and they were going to take over. And I was shocked.

First of all, we couldn't understand how security would have allowed this group of people to get in. I was struck by the descriptions that seem to suggest that the people doing this were well versed in military tactics to get in, and then to see them smashing the windows in the hallway — it was all surprising. And like most people, I mean, you try to find out where the blame is. And the blame is, for me, four years of a president who I feel rightly was impeached — because he did incite that riot, baiting the crowd, projecting misinformation all over the place. And we were all outraged.

Glenn: Now, you yourself, when you ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Jesse Helms, you had a really tough campaign, and there were lots of charges of racism. Did you foresee anything like this happening — how they reacted at the Capitol?

Gantt: Well, if you go back and try to dig deep about why this incident occurred on Capitol Hill, it really was built out of a standard feature of campaigns going all the way back to mine. If you appeal enough to the fears that people have about their future existence, you can actually dictate what might they need to do to overcome those fears. And of course, in my case, in 1990, Jesse Helms successfully blew the dog whistle of racism, and people feared African Americans holding public office. That has been a fear that extends all the way back to the beginning of this country and beyond.

The fear we have today is very similar. Many people fear the so-called left taking over and overrunning the country with people who are of different races, creeds, colors, whatever you want to call it, women and others coming forward, and that their way of life or their ability to "make America great again" would be, in fact, hampered. And then this president built it to a peak by saying, "I won in a landslide, and they cheated me." That causes a reaction. Again: fear. People many times don't vote their hopes and their aspirations for a better America as much as they vote to secure the America they understand best and keep out those who they perceive might change things.

Glenn: Today is the federal holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and you were the first African American to attend Clemson (University). Was that when you met Dr. King?

Gantt: I actually didn't meet him at all in that sense. In the days leading up to my going to Clemson, I went to Charlotte and listened to a speech I think he made at Johnson C. Smith's campus. And in the crowd, there I was with my attorney, Matthew Perry, and we just got a chance to shake his hand in a long line of people who were in awe of this young man and what he was doing. I was absolutely influenced by Martin Luther King's ministry and his leadership in the civil rights movement at that time.

Glenn: And with what's going on with President Trump's supporters calling for armed protests at state capitals around the nation on this Dr. King holiday, what are you thinking about? Because he always called for peaceful protest, and these are far from that.

Gantt: I think that Dr. King would be turning over in his grave — or frowning from heaven, shall we say. I actually find it hard to believe that we find ourselves in this place, in this country, in the days before we inaugurate the 46th president of this country, Joe Biden, to suggest that there may be violence in 50 state capitals and the capital of the United States. It's just beyond belief. But I do find that my conservative folks keep talking now about unity and peacefulness and that we can all get together on one page when in fact, for years they have actually built the attitude of this country to the point that it is today where we have this level of divisiveness.

Glenn: And, of course, North Carolina went for President Trump. Where do you think North Carolina and Charlotte stand today in terms of divisiveness? In terms of coming together?

Gantt: I'm encouraged that many of the places where Biden and Kamala Harris did well were in the urban centers and the growth regions of our state. Biden lost North Carolina, but I sensed, as I sensed back during the race with Jesse Helms, that North Carolina is going to be a purple state, much in the way that Georgia this year went blue.

And what you're seeing is a tug of war between an old South that may be clinging to an America that they felt comfortable with and a new progressive region that is growing by leaps and bounds because of education, jobs and the changing demographic. So, my hope is — and my belief is — that Charlotte is going to be all right. It's growing very well. It's bringing in new jobs. It voted substantially for the Democratic ticket, and I expect that won't reverse itself in the next four years.

Harvey Gantt was mayor of Charlotte from 1983-1987.

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