In early June 1978, thousands of letters flooded the office of North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt. Teachers protested the inadequate 6% increase in salary in the face of a 10% increase in cost of living. In an organized effort, thousands of teachers from across the state wrote to deplore Hunt’s failure to fulfill campaign promises. One letter succinctly summarized their forceful message: “I would like to register a sense of disappointment in your failure to support a cost of living increase for state employees.”
Forty years later, on May 16, 2018, the North Carolina Association of Educators organized the March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh. Roughly 30,000 people took part.
As I was researching the history of educational funding in the state on that same day, it became very clear that teachers have demanded respect for their work and adequate resources for decades. They have constantly reminded state officials that issues of teacher pay, school resources and student success were inextricably linked. The May 16th Rally for Respect echoed hundreds of similar calls throughout the years: “My cry is for dignity,” a teacher in Tyrrell County wrote to the governor in 1989. The state has yet to respond to those repeated demands.
“We have suffered a decade of cuts,” a protester declared on May 16th, 2018. The 2008 recession indeed had a profound impact on education in North Carolina, which now spends 12.2% less per pupil than prior to the recession. Teachers in the state earn an average 5% less than they did before the recession. But issues of inadequate funding for education have plagued the state for longer than the past decade. Records indicate that the legislature never fully funded the Basic Education Plan, which was created in 1985 as the first effort to address financial inequities between low- and high-wealth districts in the state.
The issues that teachers highlighted on May 16th are grounded in an even longer history of educational injustice in the state. Over a century ago, segments of the white population established a segregated system of schooling that perpetuated and reinforced inequalities between white and black schools in North Carolina. Unfair taxation and discrimination were intertwined with the very beginning of public education in the state, and have survived in many forms. During court-mandated desegregation, black teachers and administrators lost their jobs in larger numbers than their white counterparts. Reliance on property tax to fund schools inherently ensured resource inequalities between poor and wealthy districts.
This palimpsest of voices raised questions about historical research. I could hear protesters chant from the research room in the archives, which made me think in very tangible ways about the building location. Why could I hear the rally so close? Because the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh is only steps away from the legislative building, where teachers and allies were protesting. This is not a coincidence—all government buildings in the state capital are geographically close together. This was a stark reminder that the state archives are government institutions, and acknowledging this holds implications for the work of historians. State archives registered teacher voices in a specific, administrative way: the fourteen folders containing the letters of protest from 1978 were labeled “teachers and state employees—salary increase,” as opposed to other potential designations, such as “teacher protest,” “teacher organizing,” or “resistance.” I had stumbled upon the folders as I was looking for a tax-related document, and they happened to be in that alphabetically organized box.
Historians should look beyond the vocal, visible protest as a one-time event, as well as beyond layers of administrative sorting and naming in the archive. Critically addressing historical sources and current events means acknowledging that teachers have always and constantly protested cuts and unfairness in education.