Speakers recall impact of Hollings' 1963 speech

By John Monk
Staff writer, The State
Reprinted with permission of The State newspaper.

Charleston (March 8, 2003) -- Former Governor John West choked back tears Friday night.

Before a crowd of 200 at The Citadel, he recalled how Fritz Hollings, then governor, now a U.S. senator, made a surprise move to save the state from racial chaos. "It's impossible for those not living at the time to understand the emotions that were roused," said West, 80.

Former Governor John West '42 (left) and Senator Fritz Hollings discuss the political climate and tensions of the 1960s.

He was describing a crucial speech Hollings made to the S.C. Legislature in 1963, just after federal courts had ordered Harvey Gantt, a black, admitted into all-white Clemson.

"At that time, [Alabama Governor George] Wallace was defiant," said West, who was then a state senator. And South Carolina's all-white, pro-segregation Legislature would have done whatever Hollings asked -- even shut down Clemson. "The tension in that legislature was as tense as I've ever seen it."

West said when Hollings told the lawmakers,
"'We've run out of courts, and run out of time. Clemson will be integrated,' the whole state changed -- from that one speech. If he had said different, it would have changed a whole generation of South Carolinians."

West's speech, on the third day of a four-day conference on S.C. civil rights history, was the most dramatic moment yet at the conference. Since Wednesday, historians and participants have relived days of massive white resistance to desegregation during the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, people advocating equal rights faced threats and violence.

At Friday's [March 7] session, West and Hollings, 81, sat before the history-minded audience, listening as Cambridge University professor Tony Badger judged their performance on civil rights issues. Badger is recognized as Great Britain's top expert on the American South.

See the full report of the

entire civil rights conference

on The State's web site

He is one of more than 70 historians from around the nation and world who have come to The Citadel for the first-ever in-depth conference on the state's turbulent civil rights era.

Hollings and West -- both 1942 graduates of The Citadel -- told the audience they were impressed by Badger, who said South Carolina doesn't deserve its reputation as a state where moderate leaders peacefully allowed blacks to gain equal rights.

"Defiance in South Carolina was a top-down phenomenon. Far from dousing the fire of popular racism, leaders of South Carolina sought to fan the flames," Badger said, adding they devoted "vast amounts of energy" to preserving segregation.

For years, Badger said, S.C. leaders told citizens they could defy the law and preserve segregation. By insisting on law and order, Hollings saved the state from the violence and economic ruin that would have followed had he preached defiance, Badger said.

"If Hollings had said 'Go to war,' the Legislature would have done that," Badger said. "It was really one of the most courageous and most dramatic things I've seen in public life." Badger said what made the speech especially effective was the way Hollings casually departed from his text in the middle of his speech. Hollings looked down at then-State Law Enforcement Division Chief J.P. 'Pete' Strom -- who had a reputation as the state's toughest lawman -- and told him to go to Clemson and keep the peace: 'Pete, you make sure nothing happens up there.'"

Until Hollings made his speech in the Legislature, he engaged in race-baiting like other S.C. leaders, Badger said.

Although Hollings and West praised Badger's speech, Hollings pointed out he was more progressive than Badger gave him credit for being. Hollings said he was an early foe of the Ku Klux Klan and worked to strengthen anti-lynching laws at a time when that wasn't popular.

Some other Badger judgments:

Strom Thurmond (1947-1951) and Jimmy Byrnes (1951-1955) could have served the state far better if they had tried to develop ways to give blacks equal rights and told citizens they had to obey the law.

Bob McNair (1965-1971) ranks with West and Hollings as a progressive governor who, despite a racially charged climate, worked to give blacks rights and develop the state's economy.

Wrapping up the session, University of South Carolina historian Dan Carter said civil rights issues linger in South Carolina. He pointed to audience questions about whether Hollings and West would favor an investigation into the 1968 shootings of black students by state troopers at SC. State University (they didn't), and a federal court ruling this week about lack of black representation on the Charleston County Council.

"This is part of a story that keeps on going, and there's no likelihood it's going to end," Carter said.

"What is important is that we keep on talking."