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Steve Williams column: A political fight to remember

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Steve Williamsa

Unlike our national, state, and district governments where lines are meticulously drawn so voters may choose their representatives, local governments don’t necessarily follow this representative pattern. Many — the city of Georgetown included — choose their legislators (members of the city council) “at-large” with all the voters in the voting for all of the members of the legislative body. Georgetown County used to follow this pattern.

There is an inherent flaw in the “at-large” method of electing legislators. It typically results in a tyranny of the majority, with whatever political, social, economic, racial, ethnic, or religious faction that dominates the community, also dominating political life.

Throughout most of the 20th century, this resulted in the domination of all county politics and Georgetown County by white voters, to the exclusion of almost any elected officials of African descent from county government. The sole exception of which I am aware was Sam Hudson, who served on County Council a term or two. All of this dominion and control was carried out under the banner of the Democratic (or Dixiecrat) Party. There was virtually no Republican Party in Georgetown. It was, after all, the “party of Lincoln.”

Things all began to change around 1948 when the federal court in Charleston ruled that the Democratic Party was not a private club that could exclude whoever it wanted from running for office. It had to be open to participation to all without regard to race, creed, color, nationality, religion, and the like. Slowly but surely, things began to change.

Like everything else, Georgetown resisted change as long as possible. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Rev. Richard Watkins spearheaded the effort to change the electoral system for county government, “at-large” elections to choosing council members from single-member districts.

The dominating political forces of those days were commonly referred to as the “Screven Street Gang.” Council chairman Al, Schooler, attorney Jimmy Moore, Sr., State Senator. Bill Doar, Sheriff Woodrow Carter, and County Attorney Sylvan Rosen were its senior members. They didn’t always agree with one another about everything, but like members of the U.S. Senate today, they all shared a mutual interest in remaining in power.

As a general matter, these individuals chose who was going to be allowed to run for various offices and, by hook or crook, made sure their favorite sons were elected. They had their hanger-on in each community, including one notable member of the black community.

Wanting to preserve the system that gave them control and kept them at the helm of local “power,” the boys from Screven Street were not very happy with Rev. Watkins. None of them wanted any changes to the system. They became increasingly unhappy when Rev. Watkins successfully recruited the backing of people like Hughey Walker, Eugene Johnson, Sam Wraggs, Herbert L Williams, Garvey and Carol Winans, Tom Rubillo, and many others. They even had a scattering of local Republicans who, like the African-American community, had been systematically excluded from participation in the system.

Rev. Watkins circulated a petition and obtained sufficient signatures on it to force a referendum question on the ballot. Some who signed the petition suffered retaliation in one form or another.

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The petition asked for the support of a single question, as petitions of that type must, by law. It asked if members of the county council should be chosen from single member districts. When enough signatures were collected, they were given to the Election Commission to verify whether those whose names appeared were registered voters. Once that was done, and a sufficient number of signatures of registered voters were found to exist, the matter was to be placed on the ballot. The Election Commission then became responsible for choosing the language to be placed on the ballot. This is where the plot thickened.

As a red herring, members of the “Screven Street Gang” questioned the “ambiguity” in the language of the referendum to be raised. By law, the referendum could only raise one question. Both the petition and the ballot did that, but what neither addressed was a second question, namely the manner of choosing the chairman of the council. Nevertheless, the proponents of the single member districts prevailed. The “Screven Street Gang” had seriously underestimated their formidable foes. To their great surprise, the referendum passed.

Losing did not sit well with the powers that were. They questioned the validity and ambiguity of the ballot. The Committee for Single Member Districts hired two high-priced attorneys who were nationally known experts on the issue of voting rights. Once again, Richard Watkins and his committee prevailed when the circuit court judge ruled in favor of single member districts.

Eugene Johnson was elected to represent the district seat now occupied by Lillie Jean Johnson, and Hughley Walker ended up on the Council sometimes after that. For a while, hard feelings existed between Hughley and Council chairmen Al Schooler. Both had strongly supported their respective positions. But as time passed, Walker and Schooler became good friends.

So, you see, there is an important combined historical, political, and personal lesson taught by all of this. No matter how much people may disagree with each other, if they are people of good faith, they will listen and learn from one another, come to respect each other, and, whenever they can in good conscience do so, reach agreements.

If we are sincerely men and women of goodwill, we can agree to disagree without becoming disagreeable. If Walker and Schooler could rise above the prejudices, selfish interest, pride, and resentment of the culture into which they were born, I believe our local legislators, particularly our city, can too.

If our city and county leaders can put away their egos, childish things, and stand face-to-face, without “looking through a glass darkly,” but, instead, come to understand themselves and one another more clearly, then we can move boldly ahead. If not, “Pride goeth before Destruction” says the Good Book.

I did not know Al Schooler very well, but Hughley Walker was a personal friend of my father, and he is one of my heroes. I am certain both are now in heaven or at least should be.

Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.

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