United States | April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am

What It Means To Be a Tar Heel

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On May 8, voters in North Carolina will consider whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Numerous articles have already commented on why North Carolinians should unequivocally reject this anti-gay amendment. It has been rightly noted that the amendment will harm business in the state, that it will harm families, and that it threatens to obliterate the few legal protections several localities currently afford gay people. All these concerns are real, and educated voters should accord them serious thought before entering the voting booth. There is one other reason, however, why voters should reject Amendment 1: voting for this measure is incompatible with being a Tar Heel.

North Carolina has long been regarded as the “Tar Heel State” and its residents self-identify as “Tar Heels.” But what does it mean to be a Tar Heel? Although there is no clear historical account of the origins of the word, many etymological studies trace its genesis to the Civil War. During this time, legend has it that “Tar Heel” surfaced throughout the South as a term of ridicule for North Carolinians. Why? Because North Carolina was the last state to secede from the union. In other words, North Carolinians moved toward secession dragging their feet as if they had tar on their heels. This hesitancy attracted the ire of other southern states, which then began to refer to North Carolina as “the reluctant state” or “the tar heel state.”

For all its foot-dragging, however, North Carolina still succumbed to secessionist fervor. And the fact that it succumbed last does little to absolve the state from its participation in the Confederacy. Although North Carolina has made much progress with race relations today, the history books will forever record a time when this was not so. Nothing can be done to erase that fact, but North Carolinians can at least show they have learned something from this tragic past.

Today, North Carolina finds itself in a predicament similar to the one it faced in 1861. Every state in the South has voted to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage, and the ole Tar Heel State finds itself, yet again, alone and the object of ridicule of its southern neighbors. The question now is, what choice will North Carolina make this time around? On May 8, North Carolinians will answer that question for themselves when they vote on Amendment 1. As they cast their votes, I pray they remember the origins of their nickname.

If North Carolinians are to live up to that nickname today, not only do we need to hesitate in joining the rest of the South in constitutionally banning same-sex marriage, we also need to reject the proposition flat-out. United as Tar Heels, we must hold the line and stand firm for the equal worth and dignity of all our citizens.

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