Politics Magazine

Dean Smith

Posted on the 10 February 2015 by Erictheblue


According to legend, LBJ, as he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, muttered: "There goes the South."  If he said it, he was right, because in the election later that year Barry Goldwater lost the national popular vote to Johnson by more than 22 percentage points but still managed to win six states--his native Arizona and Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  Four years later, the South belonged to George Wallace, a manifest racial bigot, and four years after that it belonged to Nixon.  Today, it is "the solid South" again, but for the Republicans.  The hinge has been race.  Lincoln was a Republican, so the South in response voted Democratic for a hundred years.  When after World War II the Democrats embraced civil rights, the exodus began, and it's become a commonplace to remark that there are no white Democrats left in the South.

It's against this backdrop that the political activity of Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach at the University of North Carolina who died Saturday, attains grandeur.  When in 1958 he took up residence in Chapel Hill as an assistant coach at the university, he joined the town's only integrated church, where he remained a member for the rest of his life.  He was instrumental in integrating the town of Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, and the Atlantic Coast Conference.  A cynic might say that, as a basketball coach, he had a vested interest in gaining access to talent.  True, but none of the other basketball coaches were taking the lead, and anyway, Smith's efforts began while he was still a lowly and unknown assistant with no particular reason to think he would spend his life in Chapel Hill.  He did have reason to believe that his political views, if expressed, would make him unpopular in the state.  After all, his 36 years at the helm of the basketball program overlapped, by 24 years, the career of Jesse Helms in the United States Senate.  To the discredit of North Carolinians, Helms was never defeated at the polls, and retired after five terms.  Smith, who openly championed prison reform, gay rights, the nuclear freeze movement, and opposition to capital punishment, besides his heroic work at ending racial segregation, stood for everything Helms abominated.  It's not mentioned in most of the obituaries, but still it's true, that  Smith was repeatedly courted by the North Carolina Democratic party to run against Helms.  Had he accepted, he probably would have lost. 

If he had accepted and won, basketball would have lost one of its greatest coaches. 

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