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Gene Nichol—Disturber and Prophet

by | Apr 10, 2023

North Carolina has its own Old Testament prophet.

Maybe you remember from Bible study those prophets who preached about the people’s responsibility to care for the poor.

Elijah, of course, fearlessly stood up to the authority of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. (I Kings 18).

One of the most famous prophets is Micah, known for his oft-quoted direction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). He also condemned those who mistreated the poor.

Isaiah demanded, “is it not share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.” (Isaiah 58:7).

Jeremiah condemned those who “oppress the poor and needy and deprive them of justice.” (Jeremiah 22:3).

Amos condemned those who “trample on the poor and force them to give you grain.” (Amos 5:11).

In his new book, “Lessons from North Carolina: Race, Religion, Tribe, and the Future of America,” Gene Nichol takes on the role of North Carolina’s prophet. He writes about the abuses by those in power. He writes most eloquently about the poor and North Carolina’s exploitation and inattention to them, condemning other ways the state’s powerful oppress the powerless.

Nichol is a professor and former dean at the UNC Chapel Hill Law School. He served as law dean at the University of Colorado (1988-1995) and was president of the College of William & Mary (2005-2008). He served as the director of UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity until it closed in 2015. 

The new book, published by Blair, is scheduled for release at the end of this month.

In Chapter 1, “Rejecting the American Promise, The Reembrace of Racial Supremacy,” Nichol attacks the actions of the state legislature for having “blown through” the barriers which had seemingly been set in stone. They included “the right to vote, majority rule, free and fair elections, freedom of speech and religion, equal protection of the laws, unnecessary separation of powers, and an independent judiciary to keep the channels of democracy open and guarantee the rule of law.”

 According to Nichol, “a lot of these barriers have been freely and purposely blown through in the last decade.”  

In Chapter 2, “Politics, Tribe and (Unchristian) Religion,” Nichol asserts that “the chasm between the political agenda of most white Christian evangelicals and the teachings of Jesus is wide–beyond wide.”

In Chapter 3, “Politics and Poverty,” Nichol, like the Old Testament prophets, points out that North Carolina has some of the developed world’s highest rates of poverty, child poverty, and child hunger.

He mourns that this terrible situation “triggers no meaningful, majority-sponsored, state anti-poverty initiatives.”

In Chapter 4, “Destroying a Priceless Gem,” Nichol details examples of intervention by political figures in the operation of the university, including closing of the Poverty Center at UNC Chapel Hill, he had led, in retaliation for his critical newspaper articles.

In Chapter 5, “Movement vs. Partisan Politics,” Nichol opens with “It is no exaggeration to claim that, over the last dozen years, the North Carolina General Assembly has waged one of the stoutest wars launched by any American state in the past half century against poor people, people of color, the LGBTQ + community, public education, the environment, and even democracy itself.”

In Chapter 6, “The Limits of Law,” Nichol mourns the takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court by the “originalist adventurism” of former Justice Antonin Scalia and the current Supreme Court justices. He mourns particularly the high court’s voting “with seeming nonchalance to literally gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

In his final chapter, Nichol addresses “Democracy, Equality, and the Future of America.” Speaking of the choices before the legislature, he writes “if they have to choose between white ascendancy and the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the equal rights of humankind, then apparently, it’s an easy choice. Power, not democracy, is what matters.”

Like the prophets of old, Nichol stirs the pot.

Maybe too much. Maybe not enough.

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D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.

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