UPDATE SEPT. 15, 2017: The UNC Board of Governors voted September 8 to block the Civil Rights Center from doing litigation. The News and Observer reports this would effectively end the center's work at the university.
Royal Oak is a neighborhood on the Black and poor side of Brunswick County, near the North Carolina coast and just across Highway 17 from Carolina National Golf Club. The residents live around the swamps and thick pine forests, and their families, descended from slaves and sharecroppers, have been there for over a century.
But that didn’t stop the sand mines and waste sites from coming to their side of the highway – away from the beach homes and the tourists. Royal Oak became the dumping ground for the county and home to the county landfill.
In 2011, when the county tried to open another landfill near their homes, the Royal Oak Concerned Citizens Association filed suit. The University of North Carolina Law School’s Center for Civil Rights represented them, and they won.
Instead of a landfill, the county promised to build a school.
Lewis Dozier, the president of the Royal Oak Concerned Citizens Association, who organized local citizens against the landfill, says they couldn’t have done it without the center.
The Center for Civil Rights, founded as a part of UNC School of Law in 2001, represents the underdogs of North Carolina against the powerful and the influential; its most recent clients were the victims of forced sterilization.
“The staff will drive out to these rural churches on a Saturday night just to meet with them,” says Reighlah Collins, a soft-spoken third-year law student at UNC. “They care about these communities. These are vulnerable communities that just want affordable housing, education for their children, and to live in a safe environment.”
She signed up to volunteer for the center during her first week of law school and quickly found herself inside North Carolina’s Court of Appeals watching the center argue on behalf of the eugenics victims. She interned there her first summer and has logged over 60 hours of pro bono work drafting wills and taking depositions. Now, she’s one of the many students and professors trying to stop the school from shutting down the center’s work.
Targeted by the Board of Governors
The attack on the Center for Civil Rights is part of a much larger political shift: Republicans retook the NC General Assembly in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, and their newly won power included appointments to the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors.
Of the board’s 28 members, now only four are women and two are Democrats.
One is former chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, and five are former Republican legislators. One member, Bob Rucho, was among those responsible for the legislative district maps that the U.S. Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
“The Board of Governors reflects this ideological shift in the state legislature,” says Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney at the Center for Civil Rights. In Dorosin’s office, a bust of MLK stands next to a cardboard sign with the words, “Targeted by the Board of Governors: UNC Center for Civil Rights,” written in black magic marker. NAACP posters and a photo of the march from Selma to Montgomery line the walls.
On Aug. 1, the Board of Governor’s Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs voted five-to-one to recommend banning UNC centers from engaging in litigation. A full board vote is set for Friday, Sept.8, and the litigation ban has been the target of increasingly intense student protest.
But the Sept. 8 vote to stop the civil rights center’s work is many years in the making — and has powerful funders behind it. For the last decade, North Carolina politics has been dominated by the family of conservative philanthropist Art Pope. Pope is CEO of Variety Wholesalers, the family business of retail dollar stores across the South. In 2010, the family spent $2.2 million electing 18 Republicans to the General Assembly.
Through the Pope Foundation, the family also spent over $55 million on conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations, including the Civitas Institute and the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Both were publicly critical of the Center for Civil Rights and other academic institutions they perceived as liberal.
In June of 2014, Civitas proposed cutting the budget of UNC centers, and a month later the General Assembly asked the Board to review 240 centers and institutes across UNC’s 16-campus system. Under the auspices of saving taxpayer money, the Board closed three centers, including a Poverty Center at UNC.
Thirteen were singled out for further scrutiny, including the Cherokee Center, Carolina Women’s Center, the Center for Diversity and Inequality Research, and the Center for Civil Rights, which survived the first review because their work is funded through private grants.
But the issue was no longer the cost. During the review, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy released a report advocating the replacement of centers espousing “philosophies of multiculturalism” with those promoting a “philosophy of liberty.”
Competing legacies at a public university
From 1795 to 1955, UNC was open to whites only. For nearly two centuries, the oldest public university in the United States refused to admit students of color.
That’s until Brown v. Board of Education, a case argued in court by Thurgood Marshall. Marshall’s first intern at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was a young man from North Carolina named Julius Chambers.
Now a legend, Chambers was a child of the Depression and of segregation. First in his class and editor of the law review at UNC, he wasn’t allowed to attend the graduation dinner at Chapel Hill Country Club because he was black.
He became a civil rights lawyer, survived fire bombings of his home and office, and at the age of 34 argued Swann V. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, winning the approval of forced busing to integrate schools. He succeeded Marshall as president of the Legal Defense Fund, and in 2001 he returned to UNC to found the Center for Civil Rights.
Since then, over 600 students have contributed their time, energy and research to issues of housing and education discrimination at the center. And when Chambers died in 2013, Governor McCrory presented his family with the Spirit of North Carolina Award to honor his achievements.
The following year the governor’s party came after his legacy.
A “moving assassin” on the Board of Governors
“The board didn’t have a problem when the center was established,” says Ted Shaw, another former Legal Defense Fund president who took over at the center when Chambers died in 2013.
“What changed is the politics.”
Shaw points to a specific member of the UNC board of governors, Steve Long, as the source of the push to stop the center from doing its work. Long is a Raleigh tax attorney who was appointed to the UNC Board of Governors in 2013. He previously sat on the board of Civitas, the conservative think tank.
As a member of the working group reviewing centers and institutes, Long took special interest in the Center for Civil Rights. When the group released its initial findings in 2015, he accused the center of engaging in “political activity and political bias.”
“Its list of allies and supporters are exclusively members of the Democratic Party and funders of liberal causes,” Long said.
“I think of him as a moving assassin,” Shaw says of Long. “The rationale [for closing the center] keeps changing. At first it was an effort aimed broadly at centers throughout the system to ensure they’re not spending state money improperly.”
Shaw says the money was a straw man: outside Shaw, who is a faculty member, salaries for the five-person staff and the center’s budget are funded through private grants.
In his comments at the Board’s meeting in February of 2015, Long started shifting the goalposts to the costs of litigation for counties and cities that go to court against the center, and he argued that the university shouldn’t sue the state.
“That happens all the time,” says Dorosin, the managing attorney. “The governor sues the legislature. States sue cities.” And, he says, the center is not the plaintiff, it just represents people.
Responding to a request for comment from Steve Long, UNC’s general administration office emailed a memo he drafted this past July detailing his objections to the center.
“Permitting academic centers to engage in litigation opens the door to center personnel using the litigation to further their personal agenda,” Long wrote in the memo.
Since the initial review in 2015, Long has criticized the center for not encompassing “the full range of civil rights” such as “the right to keep and bear arms.”
Regardless of the rationale, members of the Board of Governors want the center to die. In February of this year, board member Joe Knott (a former GOP nominee for state Attorney General) was the one to introduce a ban on university centers filing legal actions.
After his committee voted to recommend the ban in August, Knott cited mission creep as his reasoning.
“We shouldn’t take students out of the classroom and put them into the courtroom,” says Knott, a Raleigh attorney and UNC law grad. “Human nature wants to do good but it’s shortsighted to turn the school into a law firm. That’s not the purpose of a university.”
And to Knott, it’s not how you train lawyers. “You need to get over youthful passion and train your mind,” he says.
Reighlah Collins never got over her passion. She came to UNC to be a civil rights lawyer. She’s conducted client intake, drafted record requests, and accompanied the center on field trips to small towns across the state.
“It’s an experience you can’t get in the classroom,” she says. “My law school experience would’ve been vastly different if not for the center.”
Litigation is only a part of the center’s work, usually after years of research and issue advocacy. But for civil rights lawyers, it’s a tool they often can’t live without.
The News & Observer called the idea of banning litigation a “ridiculous notion, motivated by political ideology,” and UNC’s student body president, chancellor, and over 600 law school deans and faculty across the country have written to the Board of Governors in defense of the center.
A diverse audience of students has attended every Board of Governors meeting about the center. And on Aug. 31, hundreds of students marched across campus in support of the center’s work.
But the BOG has so far ignored every student appeal. “It’s frustrating because they’re not listening,” Collins says.
A step backwards
North Carolina is one of many states where a shift in the legislature has meant cuts to services for the poor and to funding for higher education. Republican legislatures are trying to change the direction of public university systems.
After Royal Oak’s settlement with Brunswick County in 2014, the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy wrote that “there is no shortage of public interest firms that engage in ‘progressive’ legal advocacy and that are willing to take on such cases. The North Carolina Justice Center, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Pisgah Legal Services, for example, have similar missions.”
But in July of this year, the state’s General Assembly cut another $1.7 million from those organizations, and public funding for legal aid in the state has been cut by more than half since 2008.
If the board approves the ban, the Center for Civil Rights is likely to shut down, and the next Royal Oak is on its own.
Now 80 years old, Lewis Dozier lived through the Greensboro Four’s sit-in at Woolworth’s, the integration of North Carolina’s schools, and the rise of the New South.
“North Carolina was one of the most progressive states in the South,” Dozier says. “But this is a step backwards.”