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The dark history of NC’s immigration politics

ROB CHRISTENSEN

Syndicated Columnist


While the controversy over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies has roiled the nation, immigration has a long history as part of Tar Heel politics.

North Carolina, until recent decades, had experienced little immigration compared with other states. In the 1700s there were waves of English, Scots-Irish, Germans and others who moved into the state. But until the 1970s, North Carolina was better known as a people exporter.

In 1968, before North Carolina experienced its rapid Sunbelt growth, North Carolina had one of the most homogenous populations in the country, ranking 48th, with only Arkansas and Mississippi having less social, economic and religious diversity, according to one study.

U.S. Sen. Furnifold Simmons, a Democrat from Jones County who served from 1901 to 1931, was the state’s powerful political boss as well as chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. He is best known as a key strategist to bring about Democratic control of the state, in part, by disenfranchising black voters and instituting Jim Crow laws.

He didn’t like immigration into the United States from Southern or Eastern Europe, or what he called “the scum of the backward nations of the world.”

“Every year there are coming to this country from two to three hundred thousand foreigners who can neither read nor write; who come from the countries of the lowest wage scale of Southern and Eastern Europe; who are brought here by the great steamship companies, at the instance of the great railroads and manufacturers of the North and East, to take the places on these railroads and in these factories of the American laboring man,” Simmons said in a speech in Charlotte in 1912.

“They know nothing about our institutions; they do not seek, after they come here, to learn anything about them,” Simmons said. “They segregate themselves from our people; they do not acquire our habits; they do not learn our language; they live upon what an American would starve on. Wherever they go they reduce the wage scale and standard of living, and as soon as they have accumulated a few dollars they return to their old homes.”

(The largest immigrant groups in that era were Jews fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe and Italians.)

In an effort to “keep out this undesirable horde,” Simmons introduced in the Senate in 1906 an amendment to an immigration bill prescribing a literacy test for admission to the country — similar to the one used to prevent blacks from voting. The measure failed several times but eventually passed in 1917 with Congress overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The measure required immigrants over 16 to read 30 to 40 words in their own language. (The measure was later amended to exempt Mexican farmworkers.)

Simmons’ anti-immigrant politics were taken up mid-century by U.S. Sen. Robert Reynolds, an Asheville Democrat who served from 1932 to 1945 and was a populist demagogue.

Reynolds, an isolationist who spoke admiringly of fascist dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini before World War II, created his own anti-immigrant organization called the Vindicators Association Inc., with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The group published its own newspaper with 118,000 subscribers and had five basic objectives, according to historian Julian Pleasants’ book, “Buncombe Bob: The Life & Times of Robert Rice Reynolds.” The goals, according to the book, were: “1. Keep America out of war. 2. Register and fingerprint all aliens. 3. Stop all immigration for the next ten years. 4. Banish all foreign isms. 5. Deport all alien criminals and undesirables.”

Reynolds wanted readers to set up seven-member groups of Vindicators in their neighborhoods known as the Circle of Seven that would meet monthly. Vindicators would create their own Border Patrol open to young people between the ages of 10 and 18, who would wear badges covered with stars and stripes and who would be able to win $20 if they captured “alien crooks,” according to Pleasants’ book.

The Vindicators was anti-Semitic, denying membership to Jews, arguing against allowing more Jewish immigrants from Germany to enter the United States and complaining that Jews were too influential in the country.

Reynolds was nicknamed by some of his Senate colleagues the “Tar Heel Fuhrer,” according to nationally syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen.

The House Un-American Activities Committee said the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization that featured Nazi salutes and Nazi uniforms, had been instructed by the Nazi Party to purchase Vindicator newspapers. Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the Bund who was later deported to Germany, attended Reynolds speeches and praised the North Carolina senator.

Nor was Reynolds alone in his fascist leanings. In Asheville in 1933, the Silver Shirts, an anti-Semitic fascist organization patterned after the Brownshirts, was formed. It claimed 15,000 members.

Reynolds, as chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee during World War II, ordered an investigation into reports that Japanese-Americans held in internment camps were being pampered and getting food, clothes and housing while other Americans received nothing.

Without any proof, Reynolds denounced Japanese-Americans as “fifth column” agents who acted as saboteurs against the American war effort.

That none of these charges were true never seemed to bother Reynolds, who as a former patent medicine salesman knew the world was full of gullible people.

Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”

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