Some thoughts on the political legacy of Andy Griffith. Griffith, who was born in Mount Airy, North Carolina, on June 1, 1926, died on July 3 at the age of 86 in the town of Manteo.
“Funerals are for the living,” my mother is quick to say, but Griffith barely had one. They buried him so fast – he passed away around 7 a.m. and was lowered into the ground on Roanoke Island at about 11:30 a.m. – that it didn’t give many of the living adequate chance to reflect on the loss.
I posted Griffith’s obit to my social network page and a 30-ish West Coast black fellow surprised me by responding, “You liked that redneck cracker?” A few days later a 50-something Jewish guy from New York astonished me more by saying that he’d never heard of Griffith, nor seen The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960-1968 and has been on television almost every single day for 52 years, or Matlock, with Griffith playing a defense attorney, which ran from 1986 to 1992.
Clearly, some fundamentals of Southern political culture have completely escaped people outside the region, because Andy Griffith was the prototype North Carolina liberal. His show and his offstage role in the state’s politics in fact help explain why North Carolina is a swing state today.
At almost any hour on any day of the week in the South, if you turn on your TV and channel surf there’s a better than even chance you’ll find Griffith either as Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, single dad to Opie (Ron Howard), or as “country lawyer” Ben Matlock. And not just on cable, but free TV as well. On the day after he died my local CBS affiliate, which still airsThe Andy Griffith Show daily, broadcasted their evening news in black and white and dedicated most of the half-hour to Griffith. I’m not much of a Matlock fan, but I watched The Andy Griffith Show religiously in its original run, and even now I get at least a glimpse of it once or twice a week. I know all the characters: Deputy Barney (Bernard P.) Fife, Aunt Bee, Opie, Otis Campbell the “town drunk,” Gomer, Goober, Floyd, Miss. Helen Crump, Ellie, Thelma Lou, Ernest T. Bass, The Darlings and many others.
Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1949 with a degree in music. Politically, he was a lifelong Democrat, the Tar Heel state party’s trump card in hard-fought campaigns from the 1980s on, helping Democrats remain competitive there while the rest of the South went Republican. To me, his influence in North Carolina’s modern political history is as great as, if not greater than, that of the Rev. Billy Graham, Jesse Helms and Sam Ervin, the original “blue-dog” Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate from 1954 to 1974 and is best remembered for his role as chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices – known more popularly as the “Ervin Committee” – that investigated the 1972 Watergate break-in that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
In the convergence of political and social influence, only Dean Smith, the UNC Chapel Hill basketball coach from 1961 to 1997, rivals Andy Griffith. Most people know that Smith coached Michael Jordan, but his history goes way beyond sports. In 1964 Smith joined a local pastor and a black theology student to integrate The Pines, a Chapel Hill restaurant. In 1966 he integrated the Tar Heels basketball team, making Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at UNC. Smith helped a black graduate student purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood. He opposed the Vietnam War. In the early 1980s he publicly advocated for a freeze on nuclear weapons. During the George Bush presidency he opposed the war in Iraq, and in 2008 endorsed Barack Obama for president. Today, he campaigns against the death penalty and supports GLBT rights.
A lot of factors help explain North Carolina’s liberal image compared with other Southern states. Doubtless the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area’s reinvention of itself as the “research triangle” is one. So is Charlotte’s position as home to the big bank HQs and the state’s only professional sports team, and its distinction, in 1983, as one of the first majority-white Southern cities to elect a black mayor, Harvey Gantt, a South Carolina native. All figure into why Obama won the state in 2008 and stands a chance to do it again in 2012. Yet Griffith, along with Smith and, to lesser degrees, Ervin and Graham, helped transform North Carolina long before new residents were drawn to the research triangle and Charlotte.
Griffith influenced the nation’s racial expectations from the moment The Andy Griffith Show hit the airwaves. And he did it without many black characters being on his show. There was the occasional black woman in the crowd in the early “black and white” years, and Opie’s classical piano-playing football coach Flip Conroy, played by an ex-New York Giant, Rockne Tarkington, in the seventh season. In the late 60s spin-off show, Mayberry RFD, which coincided with widespread Southern school desegregation, the widower farmer Sam Jones had as his next door neighbor a black character named Ralph, played by Charles Lampkin. Griffith said he regretted excluding blacks from the original regular cast, saying blacks did not want to play servant roles at the time, and “there is no way in some small town in the South that white people were going to flock to a black doctor or lawyer.”
What mattered most was that Sheriff Taylor’s image defied the stereotype of Southerners as backward, ignorant, heartless bigots and redneck thugs. Taylor, the “sheriff without a gun,” was a different type of lawman from the 1930s-40s real-life types like Police Chief “Big Jesse” Helms, Sr., father of the ultra-right Senator Jesse Helms Jr. “Big Jesse” ran things in the small town of Monroe, just north of the border with South Carolina. An admirer recalled that he “had the sharpest shoe in town and he didn’t mind using it.” In Timothy Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, Williams, also from Monroe, recalled as a young kid watching as the senior Helms “flattened a black woman with his huge fists, then ‘dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey.’”
On the national stage, TV Sheriff Andy was a hero, while Eugene “Bull” Connor, the real-life Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham, Alabama, was a villain. The fictional sheriff acted with a sense of decency and humanity. The real-life sheriff was a racist brute who allowed the Ku Klux Klan to beat the Freedom Riders while his police officers stood by. In the streets Connor used fire hoses and attack dogs on protesting children before he locked them up. On television Taylor’s policing technique was “the Golden Rule,” which included allowing the town drunk to lock himself up and let himself out once he sobered up.
Oftentimes folks say that The Andy Griffith Show is popular in the South today because it “reminds us of another, kinder, gentler time where common sense and a smile ruled the day,” or because “Sheriff Taylor was a person who you could trust — trust to be honest and trust to always do the right thing,” and “the people of Mayberry cared about each other.”
There are always people, usually white, who see the Jim Crow era as a “kinder, gentler time.” That points to both the illusion and importance of Griffith’s show on the Southern psyche. As news coverage was exposing the ugliness of Southern racism to the world, with clashes over integration, brutality and murder of civil rights workers, Griffith’s show allowed whites to see themselves as being like the residents of Mayberry: “decent white people,” as older blacks back in the day would refer to Southern whites that didn’t “Lawd over you with their color.” Mayberry may have let some whites carry on with their pretenses, but it gave others a model, and license, for their own humanity.
Economically and socially, the show also took a bit of the sting out of being “from the mountains” at about the time the state began promoting tourism on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mount Airy, the town after which Mayberry is patterned, is just ten minutes from the Parkway in the northwest corner of the state – in “The Hollows” or the valley between the mountains. I had family that lived around and mixed with the whites and native Cherokee on the southern end of the Parkway near Hendersonville and Asheville. My relatives were migrant workers who picked beans and apples, so not being afraid to travel through the “hicks and hollows” where the “po white trash” supposedly lived, and learning to know and appreciate mountain culture, was a must. My father loved Sunday drives up to the mountains whenever we visited family. I still travel the Parkway today when I get the chance. It helps to see that first and foremost, mountain people love the beauty of the mountains. That’s why they live there. And that’s good.
Now, North Carolina in the 60s wasn’t Mayberry-esque. When Helms junior, in opposition to the creation of the North Carolina Zoo, suggested they “just put a fence around Chapel Hill,” when he referred to UNC as the “University of Negroes and Communists,” the translation was: “Once you leave Chapel Hill you’re in North Carolina.” Or, as my family saw it, “once you leave Charlotte you’re in Concord,” the town just beyond, well known as a speed trap for black motorists passing through.
Still, that didn’t stop a kid from trying to find the mythical Mayberry on a road map. And when you couldn’t find it, you settled for Siler City, which does exist or Pilot Mountain, which was called Mt. Pilot on the show, and the other small towns mentioned on the show.
In the sixties, despite reality, the two Carolinas seemed as different as night and day. On the bright side, the Tar Heel state was where four black college students in Greensboro initiated the sit-in movement the same year that Griffith’s show began airing; in April of that year, 200 students met at Shaw University in Raleigh to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On the dark side, when some of those black students in SNCC crossed the border into Rock Hill, South Carolina, a year later, the group of seven black and six white people, including now Congressman John Lewis, were met at the Greyhound bus station by a mob of twenty angry whites ready to pummel them back in their places. We all took note of Chuck Berry’s 1964 song “Promised Land” where a poor black boy boarded a Greyhound bus that stopped in Charlotte but “bypassed Rock Hill.”
Race relations in North Carolina seemed to worsen in the 1970s. The decade started with open racial strife in Wilmington, when Ben Chavis and nine others wound up in jail on trumped-up charges, and it ended with five protest marchers killed by members of the KKK and American Nazi Party, with police collusion, in Greensboro. But the state still had stalwarts Griffith and Billy Graham – who once admitted he had been a registered Democrat for most of his voting life, though he supported Richard Nixon in 1968.
I believe that Griffith’s role as Lonesome Rhodes, a narcissistic megalomaniac in Elia Kaman’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, hugely influenced Graham. Thinking about the force he [Graham] had become, Rhodes could have been speaking to him when he said: “I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence … a wielder of opinion … a force – a force!” About his adoring fans, Rhodes says: “They’re mine. I own ’em. They think like I do. But they’re even more stupid than I am. So I gotta think for ’em!” He threatens, “If the president tries to stop me, I’ll flood the White House with millions of telegrams!” Graham certainly liked his access to the politically powerful but he didn’t become a caricature of Rhodes. In his early years folks were more prone to liken Graham to Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry, “a con with a collar” but Graham never became that type of demagogue con man either.
Movie characters and Nixon aside, during the civil rights era Graham had a close relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. When Graham invited King to appear at his 1957 evangelistic crusade in New York City, he took a lot of heat from segregationists. King credited Graham with playing a significant part in reducing the tension between whites and blacks in the South. The two men split over the Vietnam War, but what blacks in the rural South heard was “the Rev. Billy Graham supports the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.” Graham had integrated religious services, with Myrtle Hall, a black woman and native of Greenville, South Carolina, singing with the Crusade, which still regularly airs across the South.
Most whites in early 60s South were Democrats. But I always suspected that Sheriff Andy and his sidekick, Deputy Barney Fife, were “John Kennedy,” liberal Democrats as opposed to Strom Thurmond-Jesse Helms Dixiecrats and most certainly not Nixon Republicans. In one episode Andy tells Barney, “That’s how democracy works,” and immediately Barney, misconstruing what ‘democracy’ meant, becomes agitated, thinking Andy knows how he voted, only to tell Andy after his brief pout, “If you tell me who you voted for, I’ll tell you who I voted for.”
The real-life Andy campaigned for Democrats like Governor Jim Hunt in his 1984 race against Senator Helms. Helms won re-election, bringing in Moses, actor Charlton Heston, to appear in a TV commercial for him. In 1989, Griffith was asked to run against Helms after the polling outfit Mason-Dixon had him leading the incumbent by nine points, 48 percent to 39 percent. Supporters even printed up “Run, Andy, Run” bumper stickers. But Griffith wasn’t interested in a political career. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt became the Democratic standard bearer, and race became a central issue when Helms ran his infamous “Hands” ad.
In 2000 and 2004 Griffith campaigned for Mike Easley in the governor’s race, even as Dean Smith backslid a bit, cutting an ad in 2000 for Republican and former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, one of Smith’s former players. Easley’s victory was dubbed “the Mayberry Miracle” because of Griffith’s endorsement ad.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s Griffith played the role of “country lawyer” Ben Matlock. Some say the Matlock character was loosely based on Senator Sam Ervin, who also liked to call himself “just a country lawyer.” Maybe it was, but maybe not. Early in his career Ervin was all at once a defender of civil liberties, Jim Crow racial segregation and immigrant nationality quotas. On the civil liberties front, he served on the investigation committees that brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 at a time Graham embraced the red scare. Graham said of McCarthy: “… I thank God for men who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle and from that vantage point try in every subtle, undercover way to bring comfort, aid and help to the greatest enemy we have ever known — communism.” But in 1956 Ervin helped organize resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and helped draft the segregationist Southern Manifesto. Ervin said he later changed his mind on the Brown school desegregation decision, stating “to the extent it eliminated mandatory segregation, [it] was correct, but … forced integration, required under later decisions, was improper.” Ervin argued that Americans were entitled to “their prejudices as well as their allergies.” Later in his career he opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. But as a civil libertarian he opposed “no-knock” search laws, thought lie-detector tests were an invasion of privacy, opposed compulsory school prayer and supported the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment, which made illegally seized evidence inadmissible in criminal trials.
Just maybe, Sheriff Andy of Mayberry and Ervin influenced each other on civil liberties. In one of my favorite episodes, called “The Tape Recorder,” Opie secretly records a bank robber confessing to his lawyer where he hid the money, against Andy’s strict orders. Opie gives his dad the tape, and Andy erases it without listening to it, explaining to his son the privacy rights of the accused, due process and the rule of law. That TV lesson sounds like a quaint ideal today in light of the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and all the other civil liberties limitations brought on by the “war on terror.”
After the passing of Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife, in 2006, my mom, a big fan of both men, said, “Well, now that ‘Barn’ is gone ‘Ang’ (the on-screen nicknames of the two) won’t be too far behind.” Andy lasted a half-dozen more years, actively backing both Bev Perdue in the 2008 governor’s race and candidate Obama. In 2010 he promoted Obama’s Affordable Care Act in the face of complaints from at least five GOP senators, including North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who wrote human resources secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding that Griffith’s publicly funded ad be pulled.
So when you think of great white Southerners like Mississippi’s Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, or Alabama’s Harper E. Lee, whose 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird exposed the racist nature of Southern justice, or President Jimmy Carter of Georgia, or former Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, it is no stretch to add Andy Griffith’s name to the list. Because while we every now and then read the works of the great writers, praise or condemn Carter, and regularly forget or ignore that Hollings was the last of the great Southern liberal lawmakers, we see Griffith’s work everyday. Andy Griffith to a Southerner is like grits and soul food. It will be interesting to see how Southern Democrats and liberals fare without Andy in the flesh.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at email@example.com.