The first gubernatorial debates of the South Carolina primary season take place on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and regardless of your politics, that amounts to an eating occasion.
Food and campaigns have been mixed up in this country at least since the 18th century, when George Washington attended half a dozen barbecues in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. By the 1800s, a candidate didn’t stand a chance of winning a seat in the South if he didn’t offer potential constituents a slow-cooked hog, whiskey and lemonade.
But in the twinned history of votes and vittles, a few restaurants also figure prominently. Chief among them in Charleston was Brooks Restaurant, which could be considered the birthplace of the United Citizens Party.
Albert Brooks was a hugely successful entrepreneur who moved home to Charleston after studying at Allen University and serving in the Army. He told The Evening Post that friends were mystified by his decision: “Albert, why do you stay down South?” they asked. “I’ll tell you why,” he told them. “I find that most everything up North is phony. I like it here in my home town of Charleston. I have done well. I have prospered.”
That was an understatement.
“We were seated in the office of the Brooks Motel in downtown Charleston, waiting for Cassius Clay to come back from wherever he had gone,” a Detroit Free Press sportswriter recounted in 1970, six years after Muhammad Ali shed his “slave name.”
“As you looked down Morris Street, you could see Brooks Pool Hall, Brooks Real Estate and Brooks Restaurant,” the columnist continued. “I imagined, somewhat cynically, that Mr. Brooks must be a white man.” He was wrong.
The restaurant that the writer saw, and later visited for a Coke, was the third eating establishment to bear the Brooks’ name: Henry Brooks, Albert’s older brother, opened a small cafe in 1934. Sixteen years later, after counting passers-by on Morris Street, Albert Brooks persuaded Henry and their brother Benjamin to launch Brooks Grill.
In 1967, Albert and Benjamin Brooks moved the restaurant to more spacious quarters across the street. Heralded as “a restaurant for everyone,” Brooks Restaurant housed five handsome dining rooms.
As for the food, it was homey. When James Brown dropped by the restaurant to pick up a key to the city, he supped on beef stew.
But the restaurant was the backdrop to wildly ambitious political meetings, including a five-hour get-together that culminated with the selection of officers for the United Citizens Party, an effort to subvert the South Carolina Democratic Party’s refusal to nominate black candidates.
“We’re not opposing anybody,” a then-29-year-old James Clyburn told those gathered at Brooks on Feb. 8, 1970. “We’re proposing something.”
Because South Carolina allows for the same candidate to run on two tickets, the UCP’s strategy was to back African-American Democrats and Republicans in black-majority districts.
Four months later, following the Democratic primary, party members held a victory celebration at Brooks. “There were smiles, tears and speeches that couldn’t always be heard above the din of hundreds of well-wishers,” The News and Courier reported, describing the mood of “unrestrained joy.”
As the paper reminded readers, wins by Clyburn, Herbert U. Fielding and Lonnie Hamilton III meant that “for the first time in Charleston County and the State of South Carolina, a Negro had been declared the winner of a Democratic primary.”
Brooks Restaurant closed in 1979. When a few years later, a speaker at the NAACP’s Southeast Regional Convention in Charleston exhorted the audience to patronize black-owned businesses, attendees thought back to “the James Hotel on Spring Street, the Brooks Restaurant on Morris Street (and) the Ladson House on President Street,” according to The Evening Post. “Had these pioneers been given support, they would have been thriving businesses today.”
— Hanna Raskin