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Student Invited to Present Research in Washington, DC
As a boy growing up in Morganton, NC, Patrick Cash said he often heard the stories of the town’s native son, Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., who, on breaks from the U.S. Senate, would stroll around Morganton, talking and interacting with people, and telling his famous humorous stories.
Now, as a senior majoring in history at Mars Hill College, Cash has channeled his interest in Ervin into a research project which he had the honor of presenting at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s “Posters On the Hill” event in Washington D.C. Of more than 700 presentations submitted for consideration from around the country, Cash’s research project was one of only 34 selected for the event.
“I’ve always been a fan of Ervin,” Cash said. “He was one of my heroes growing up, and I always told myself that I wanted to be a U.S. senator because of him. He was, in my opinion, a senator who really thought about the average man.”
So, when Cash realized that his history degree at Mars Hill College would require a major research project, the life of Senator Sam Ervin was an obvious choice.
Cash was inclined to research the period in Ervin’s life for which he is most famous – as the lead Democratic investigator who pursued President Richard Nixon during the Watergate trials. But as Cash began to narrow his research topic, he realized that Ervin’s role in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was just as pivotal in American history, and was, nevertheless, far less researched.
“Senator Ervin played a huge role in the opposition of the civil rights movement, but his hero status from the Watergate hearings has almost overshadowed that role, and very few people knew that he was even a part of this,” Cash said.
Cash’s long journey into Ervin’s role in opposing civil rights legislation, lasting over a year now, has both stirred a passion for research, and brought him face-to-face with the complexity and human limitation to which even our heroes fall victim. One of the compelling qualities of Cash’s research is that he tackles the complexity of Ervin’s legal reasoning, and juxtaposes it with his reputation as a man of fairness and decency.
“Senator Ervin never saw himself as a racist,” Cash said. “He actually considered himself a friend of African-Americans. Ervin stressed that southern politicians should stay away from the racially-charged and white supremacist rhetoric often used during that time. He focused instead on a legal argument, saying that what the federal government was doing under Kennedy, Eisenhower and Johnson was illegal because it violated the 10th Amendment guaranteeing state’s rights.”
While Cash admits a certain validity to Ervin’s reasoning, he also believes that Ervin’s arguments “conveniently ignored” the equally valid protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which promise equality for all Americans, regardless of race.
According to Cash’s research, Ervin came to be seen as the unofficial “lawyer” for the southern opposition within congress, not only for advancing proactive legal arguments against civil rights legislation, but also in devising tactical legal strategies which stalled the legislation in committee (referred to as the “Soft Southern Strategy.”) Whether they agreed with Ervin’s stance or not, Ervin’s colleagues in congress at the time were known to have admired his extraordinary legal skills and his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
Cash’s professor for the research project was Dr. John Gripentrog, assistant professor of history at Mars Hill College. Gripentrog mentored Cash during his research experience and traveled to Washington D.C. with him for the Council on Undergraduate Research event. According to Gripentrog, it is Cash’s willingness to tackle the complexity of his subject that allows his research to provide an authentic understanding of history.
"Patrick’s project was the best kind of history in that it shined a light on neglected territory and grappled with the complexity of the past, showing how white supremacy in the Jim Crow South came in all shades,” Gripentrog said. “Senator Ervin was a decent man, a celebrated man, but as Patrick makes clear, he was also a man of his times—someone who worked just as hard as blatant racists to obstruct civil liberties for black Americans.”
According to Gripentrog, the struggle for civil rights legislation provides lessons that are relevant for the present and the future. “The thrust of Patrick’s scholarship, I think, remains relevant in our own time. Whereas Ervin hid behind alleged legalisms to oppose guaranteed constitutional rights, today some Americans have hid behind strained claims about birth certificates to challenge the legitimacy of a black president. It reminds us once again how the past is present, and that race is an issue that Americans continue to really struggle with."
As Cash graduates and leaves Mars Hill College, his plans include a graduate degree in history and a future teaching career at the college or university level. His aspirations also continue to include a possible path in politics, undertaken with what is now a fuller understanding of the man who first inspired those dreams, and the charity to comprehend that even heroes are products of their time.
Cash said: “I think Ervin’s opposition to the civil rights legislation was wrong, but my research made me respect his political mind. I still respect the man and I still have a great passion for furthering my knowledge and education about him. But we’re all human and nobody stands on a pedestal as perfect.”