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Episode Transcript: Eva Clayton is still pushing for a better North Carolina

Charlie Shelton-Ormond
This is Tested from WUNC, a look at how we're responding to the day's challenges in North Carolina and the South. I'm Charlie Shelton Ormond.

For more than half a century, Eva Clayton has been active in North Carolina politics. She's been a county commissioner, voting rights advocate, and the first Black woman from North Carolina elected to the US House of Representatives. On this episode of Tested we're bringing you a conversation with Eva Clayton and my colleague WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Jeff Tiberii. Jeff recently joined Eva Clayton at her home in Warren County. Jeff was also joined by Tested co-host Leoneda Inge, who's working on an additional Tested episode featuring the former Congresswoman. I'm going to pass it off now to Jeff and Eva Clayton.

Eva Clayton
I'm Eva Clayton and my current title, I'm a proud grandmother and a mother.

Jeff Tiberii
It's a cool winter morning as 87-year-old Eva Clayton sits at her kitchen table inside of the red, split-level house on Lake Gaston where she moved in 52 years ago,

Eva Clayton
I had several opportunities to my life. I've been a congresswoman. I've been the chair of the county commissioners. And after I left Congress, I had the opportunity to go to Rome, Italy and I had that ambassador status. I was the assistant secretary for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the largest United Nations organization of the world.

Jeff Tiberii
Clayton has on a light pink sweater. The table she sits at is a keepsake from Rome, where she spent several years after a decade in the US House. In 1992, Clayton became the first Black woman from North Carolina ever elected to Congress. She won a race to replace Walter Jones senior. She was also the first Black person since Reconstruction to win a seat in the US House from our state. Despite being 87 Clayton is still going strong. She recently wrote an op-ed, is following the redistricting process closely, and keeps a finger or two on the political pulse. She also spends part of her time working with an agricultural nonprofit called GROW, and has those six grandchildren who she speaks of often. I joined my colleague Leoneda Inge for this interview, you'll hear her voice at times.
Okay, so our conversation with former Congresswoman Clayton covered a lot of ground to get us going — a CliffsNotes version of how she ended up in Warren County, about an hour and a half northeast of Raleigh.

Eva Clayton
Basically, my background is I came from Georgia, a fairly large city compared to Warren County. It was, I lived mostly in Augusta, Georgia, born in Savannah, and but went to school in Charlotte. So my husband his big idea, for his firm, he said we are going back to Charlotte. That's my own practice. He didn't know anybody in Charlotte, other than the professors that you know. So coming to Warren County was an opportunity, obviously to establish the integrated firm, his first integrated firm in the state of North Carolina, of all places Warren County, not Charlotte, Warren County. So that's how we got here. But and we fell in love with the county. The county responded to my husband. And my husband had a sense of purpose as well as I did. I got involved in voter registration. So we've been here through the ups and downs and the resistance, but mainly ... understanding that not only Warren County, but the rural area in particular, had a lot of challenges, and had a lot of potential.

Jeff Tiberii
So I am wondering if you maybe breezed through an element of that. So your husband was part of the first integrated law firm in the state, which happened to be here in Warren County. I can imagine that was not the easiest thing to get together and move forward.

Eva Clayton
No. It's very challenging. Yes. And now and then it was challenging, but it was the opening for him. And the lawyer, he was in practice, I think bout two and a half years. The lawyer was killed. Now I can't say he's killed because of integration. But I think you know, that there was always a question about his death.

Jeff Tiberii
Now, just real quick, you're talking about your husband's former law partner.

Eva Clayton
Yeah, and he was shot. He was shot. He was shot. He was shot, found dead shot. And there was always a question if that wasn't either motivated or encouraged because of what he did, but they put it on as a personal grudge rather than a community reaction to, you know, but surely there was more of a community reaction to him than to my husband. There was a little resentment but there was an openness for them from the Blacks, and some support from the whites but limited.

Jeff Tiberii
Julius Chambers is often credited for being part of the state's first integrated law firm in Charlotte in the mid 1960s. However, they were actually preceded by Eva's late husband, Theaoseus Theaboyd, known as T.T. and James D. Gilliland. An old-frame newspaper clipping from The Warren Record, dated October 27 1961, can be found in Clayton's basement today. And although Gilliland, a white man had teamed up with T.T., he still had some improvements to make.

Jeff Tiberii
I read that there was at some point early on in your husband's law practice, integrated law practice that he he faced a fierce picketer, he faced somebody who was picketing, and that somebody was you.

Eva Clayton
He was in partnership with the white attorney who owns the building. Yeah. And so the white attorney said, Hey, is that your wife down there? He said, yeah. And then he said, well you better tell her... and [my husband] said, Why don't you tell her! [laughs] That's true. That is true.

Jeff Tiberii
What were you protesting,?

Eva Clayton
Protesting a segregated restaurant.

Jeff Tiberii
So he had a segregated arrest upstairs an integrated law firm...

Eva Clayton
Yes. Inconsistent.

Jeff Tiberii
It does seem a little, a little inconsistent...

Eva Clayton
A little? [laughs]

Jeff Tiberii
So what was the result? What happened? Was the restaurant...

Eva Clayton
Oh, he pulled it down. And actually there was never never a sign that said...

Leoneda Inge
White only

Eva Clayton
Uh huh. Never. They just knew that just knew it and had to he had a big, um, same counter, but you had this partition, you know, like this table, and you have a partition here. And you knew I need sit on the side and he needs to sit her. So what result? He just put a a partition down. Yeah. I mean, he showed not have had me do all that to put the partition... he should have known better.

Jeff Tiberii
Clayton has spent a lifetime advocating for a more equitable North Carolina. She and her husband raised four children in Warren County. In 1968, she made her first bid for Congress, an unsuccessful one. Meanwhile, her husband T.T. built a successful law practice and became business partners with civil rights leader Floyd McKissick senior in the late 1960s McKissick had a bold vision, create a community where Black people could thrive residentially industrially, and economically, it would be called Soul City. Soul City actually came to be for a few years in Warren County. Although the vision was never truly reached, the Clayton's were integral members of this plan and actually lived in Soul City for a time. We don't have time to get too deep on Soul City right now. But as an aside, I do recommend the book "Soul City" by Thomas Healy, if I've piqued your interest.

Jeff Tiberii
Tell me why we are or are not in a position in the next few years for somebody to take another crack or a group of people to take another shot at an effort, not the same, will never be something the same as Soul City, but something similar. Why is now a good time or not a good time to try that again?

Eva Clayton
I'm with you. I think it is. I think it is, I think we'll do something in the same spirit and the same vision and imagination as Floyd had. May not be the same components, and he had the audacity to dream big. You know, in some ways, he had the stubbornness to cause a little bit of reaction. It was going to be called Soul city. So you know, we had that conversation, but he had, what I liked about him, he had the audacity to believe that Blacks could be involved in creating something big for themselves. Now he never believed that whites weren't a part of that. His partner was white. Floyd had Gordon Carey at his side from the time he was in CORE all the way here. And he was a guy who was now on his back, but also his front. So he, there was almost always that. But the audacity that he would not back down and saying, yes, these are Blacks who want to try this. You know, now Blacks have tried things in entertainment. And that's gone, I'mm not sure why, you know, a community could be that Black community all over the world. But the Black community you force them in certain geographical area, it hasn't been because of imagination that we're going to do that. In the musical area, you've had Blacks come together and create the kind of business that brought people together that did a great activity. But I think we ought to have another tried. I really do. And if you can get some bright minds, well, I'll add my old brain to it and see what we can do. And, you know, I think there's some opportunity to some agriculture, or either musical, or historical, you know, I think we missed an opportunity. I think North Carolina missed the opportunity. It's not just Blacks. This is whites can do that, too. I mean, Motown wasn't just for Blacks, right? They enjoyed that music as well, right?

Jeff Tiberii
We've been just sitting here chatting with you for the better part of an hour now, it would seem as though you are still quite politically engaged, involved, writing editorials, making reference to books that are being banned. So clearly, you're following the redistricting process to some extent, right. So this landmark decision comes from the state Supreme Court a couple of Fridays ago, striking down districts on the basis of partisan gerrymandering. Violating, I think, four different clauses in the state constitution. Were you surprised by such a ruling? And what do you hope comes out of this ruling here in short order?

Eva Clayton
Well, I was hopeful that that ruling would be that now when it gets back to the General Assembly, will the General Assembly respond in a way the ruling suggests. That we want to provide all the constitutional corrections are possible. What do I suspected do? I think they would do a minimum of tweaking here and there, Just take out the district I'm in. They have moved not only the geographical boundaries, but have done it in such a way that it captures certain politics, certain racial demographics in that area. So both they have moved it in such a way that when you move Blacks out of the composition, when you know already, Blacks are mostly Democrats, you have predicted you're going to get less Democrats, right? So it's not... So in that effort, you are trying to limit now only the power of the political process, but also the power of minority participate in that area. So it's both a racial gerrymandering as well as political gerrymandering in that area

Jeff Tiberii
And just maybe to put more of a little bit more of a historical bow or context on it. And tell me if my history is off, because I didn't move here until 2006. But where we are sitting, this general, this large vicinity here in the coastal plains, it went from the First, then it was the Second, but it has been served, a Black representative has served either the First or the Second in Congress since you in 1992. And GK Butterfield is retiring as we know, the districts as they, I guess they're presently unknown because they've been struck down. But if the next congressional district for this area looks anything like the most recent one, the one that was struck down, it is quite, quite possible, if not likely, there would not be a Black representative in Congress for the first time in more than 30 years. Why is why is that an important distinction?

Eva Clayton
Well, it's an important distinction, because you have denied a substantial number of the population that they have representation. Part of the whole idea of Congress is to have representation of the full population. And I don't know the percentage of Blacks in the whole state, but this area is considered a Black belt. And so when you can craft a district in such a way that you take away the power of the Blacks who are concentrated up here. Why should I as a Black person, or Black people not see that as taking away the potential power of a substantial number of people who constitute the population of North Carolina? I mean, that's, that's significant.

Jeff Tiberii
Eva Clayton is one of nine Black people to serve North Carolina in Congress ever. Four served during Reconstruction, then a 92-year hiatus followed by Clayton's win in the early 1990s. For some slightly broader context, in the history of the United States, only two Black women have ever earned election to the US Senate, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and Kamala Harris of California. Notably, North Carolina has an open US Senate race this year, and Cheri Beasley is the presumptive Democratic nominee. And I was interested in what gives Clayton the most optimism about candidate Beasley, a Black woman, and conversely, what gives her the most concern?

Eva Clayton
Well, what gives me optimism is herself, the quality she brings, the fight she brings, the energy bring. And what gives me concern is the, um, not the lackadaisical, but the reality if we are not understanding the challenges we have as citizens to put her in, and not only to put her in, the challenge is our participation, that gives me concern. And how do we stimulate people, not only the Cheri Beasley with all these qualities, but Cheri Beasley opens the door for so many other activities. So that gives me the challenges and the concern that I have. Also, what gives me a little bit of concern with Beasley is because she is a presumptive winner we let our guards down. We want to rear them out. We want to stir that up. Oh, yes. We go in that fighting, not we go in there relaxing in that scenario. I do think sometime the stronger the opposition is, the reaction... I think what helped Biden was Trump helped Biden I mean, oh my god, that? Huh? Oh, my God, come deliver me. You know, sometimes the opposition scares the hell out of you. Excuse me. I forgot to say that. But it scares me really, you have to say I gotta do something. I want to see that same kind of spirit with Beasley This is a great opportunity. I want the same kind of spirit we had when Obama was the audacity that they think we couldn't put a Black man as president.

Jeff Tiberii
Think about, like, say a football coach. Right? We've had some issues recently in the NFL with Black coaches. And, yeah, they get a chance here and there. But it seems like they're the last to be hired, the first to be fired. Right? Like that's, I've heard that a few times. And I think about Beasley She's an accomplished jurist, she I mean, she's qualified to run for the US Senate as much as anybody else who's run for Senate in the last, whatever, 10, 20 years. I'm thinking about endorsements, I think about tapping into the arms of fundraising, I'm thinking about, does she have the full support? And do other Black women have the full support of the Democratic Party and of progressive causes? Or is there still something either holding, potentially holding back women of color from running for elected office, or not propping them up as much as they are propping up...

Eva Clayton
Yeah, is there enough support? No. Even from women themselves, I'm gonna take a little piece from when I ran. Sometimes women have to be, oh, even Blacks, we have to be reassured that you can do it. Okay. I remember when I ran first time, there were six in the Democratic Party running, two whites and four Blacks. I was a female. And I got support from National Women's Organization. But that's important, I can tell you what's needed. I'm glad they gave it to me. But it wasn't the enthusiastic and the maximum that they could have given. When we had the runoff, when I was on with Walter Jones Jr. Clearly, they saw the potential that you could do it. So we have to kind of overdo make them believers, even ourselves, we have to make believers and I'm talking about the candidate and so even the family of the people you think ought to support you. So the difference between the support I got in the general election and the support I got in runoff, I bet it was 40% different. You got respectable, I'm making the numbers up. Let's say you got 20,000 or 25,000. I bet I got close to 100,000. Now close 100,000 will be two or 300,000 now. Is Beasley getting the... I'm sure she's getting good support. Could she get more? I'm sure she could. And I think the women for a couple of reasons are going to be very supportive of her. The whole issue of abortion, the possibility we may lose, that means that you have to resort now to legislation, right? So you're gonna want to have a friend, and Beasley represents a real strong friend. So she's gonna get support stronger than women. Then if there's the forces now to say, 'Hey, this is the only ship you got going.' And I'm hoping she's getting the very best support. But she can only tell you that she's getting all the support she needs.

Jeff Tiberii
So at 87 years old.

Eva Claton
Yes, 87.

Jeff Tiberii
What remains on on your call to bucket list. But what else do you want to achieve? What else do you want to see?

Eva Clayton
Well, what I'm doing now, obviously is more thinking and doing but I have been involved with a local group, its called GROW. And I've been involved with the whole issue of healthy food to people. The other thing is to begin to see how politically now in this area, but that rural communities could be engaged, stronger than half there is a presumption that rural areas are not as engaged or better still, this presumption that rural active citizens are white, or they are more Republicans. And what the Democrats do, they live as if that's true. So they concentrate in the Durhams or the Charlottes, right? But define how you increase participation in rural areas, not only for the benefit of political but also for the benefit of engaging better communities. And part of that is not just waiting to register people at political time, but engage them in health, and getting the kinds of health benefits they need. or other kinds of benefits they need.

Jeff Tiberii
At the risk of asking too personal of a question, the last two years haven't been fun. I say that like duh, right? You lost your husband three years ago, you lost your brother a couple years ago, that only I'm going to assume has made the pandemic more challenging in some ways.

Eva Clayton
Yes, very lonely. And but I have developed in that process, just a little before pandemic came, I lost my husband, but I had to develop the kind of resilience. A spiritual resilience, of a discipline. I'm alive, and I'm grateful. And just to say that helped me but also to structure my daily life either have devotion, have exercise, have something to do, but I can't say that you're not getting lonely. You're not lonely. You know, you are, you are but you have to, you have to force yourself. You know not to have a pity party, you know, I can't put it all on the pandemic didn't make it easy. I tell you what I tell people, say what are you doing? You know, say I said, Well, I have a schedule. I can even go to supermarket, I can go to the drugstore. Or I can go to the trash dump. Those are the things on my agenda. And for social outing, I go to see the doctors you know. As you age, you have doctors. Right now I'm going to physical therapy because I have a bad back but you're either going to the doctor, you're doing something in that area, so we find something to do.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond
That's it for this episode of tested. If you want to hear more from Jeff, check out and subscribe to the WUNC Politics Podcast. I'm Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Thanks for listening