Learning Our Story

Protester on Main Street in downtown Columbia. Image courtesy of John H. McCray Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

In 1963, local members of an emerging Nation of Islam group invited their fiery leader, the black separatist Malcolm X, to speak in Columbia. Their chosen venue: the Township Auditorium.

The invitation to Malcolm X could hardly have come at a more tumultuous time. For three years, students from Benedict College and Allen University had been conducting sit-ins and protests at downtown businesses such as Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress and Eckerd’s Drug Store, calling for an end to segregation. Just six weeks before Malcolm X’s April 17 visit, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down its ruling in the case of Edwards v. South Carolina, supporting the right of black students who had marched from Zion Baptist Church to the State House grounds in March 1961. And just eight days after Malcolm X’s visit, Robert F. Kennedy gave a passionate defense of integration at the University of South Carolina.

By 1963, the edifice of segregation was starting to crumble: Even Gov. Ernest Hollings, once a staunch segregationist, had declared in his final, January 1963 speech as governor that the era of segregation was over.

But not everyone was ready for it to be over: In May of 1963, more than 1,000 white students rallied at the State House against the coming integration of USC. And when Mayor Lester Bates led the city’s business community toward peaceful integration later the same year, Main Street businessman Maurice Bessinger proclaimed that it would be the death of the city.

Even on the other side of the desegregation debate, motivations and methods varied widely. White politicians were primarily concerned about stability, not the empowerment of blacks, and wanted to control the process of integration as much as possible. Meanwhile, there were generational and organizational tensions within the black community. Early on, the NAACP tended to favor court action and marches, whereas college students were pushing for more aggressive actions such as sit-ins at businesses. Parents tried to keep their kids from protesting. Blacks differed, too, on the extent to which they should cooperate with the white establishment in the process.

These snapshots of Columbia’s civil rights history might not be widely known, but they’re gaining attention week by week: As part of the Columbia SC 63 project, the City of Columbia has teamed up with USC, the Historic Columbia Foundation, and the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau to research and promote Columbia’s little-known civil rights history. And that history is a fascinating one — one that includes not only sit-ins and a march that led to three Supreme Court rulings, but also the story of Sarah Mae Flemming, who challenged discrimination on public buses well before the famous Rosa Parks incident.

“Scholars knew the cases, but very few people would think that there were three very significant civil rights milestones that were heard before the Supreme Court, two of which involve students at Allen and Benedict,” says Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history and African-American studies at USC. “I didn’t know that.”

For Donaldson, the Columbia SC 63 project has been a natural outgrowth of his years researching the history of the city and its black neighborhoods. But it didn’t come together as a citywide initiative until Mayor Steve Benjamin got involved, talking to his counterparts in other Southern cities about what they were doing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of some key civil rights events. The city is now part of a multi-city effort, 50 Years Forward, to commemorate the civil rights movement.

“This really affords us a chance to share these stories in a much broader forum than we have before — and also to identify new chapters of the history,” Donaldson says.

“We didn’t know how rich our history was until we started looking at this,” says Robin Waites, director of the Historic Columbia Foundation.

No to Malcolm, Yes to Matthew

Malcolm X never spoke at the Township. In fact, few Columbians are aware that he spoke here at all. Nor did his message of black nationalism resonate in this city: Here, the towering figure of the era was Matthew Perry, a civil rights attorney (and later a federal judge) whose work on cases involving school desegregation, lunch counter sit-ins and public protests led to landmark legal rulings. Among Perry’s many achievements: arguing the case that forced Clemson University to admit its first black student, Harvey Gantt, in 1963.

According to Donaldson — who, along with USC doctoral candidate Ramon Jackson, has developed a detailed timeline of the civil rights movement in the city — state legislators intervened to keep Malcolm X out of the high-profile Township, sending the outspoken leader scrambling for another venue and eventually speaking at a mosque in the Waverly neighborhood. And today, Donaldson’s only been able to find a couple of local residents who remember the visit at all.

One thing researchers did find, however, was an FBI report on Malcolm X’s visit. The existence of the report, along with the action of the Legislature, confirms what was obvious at the time: Whites saw Malcolm X as a threat.

In Columbia, though, they needn’t have worried. Here, the white establishment — working with prominent blacks, and spurred along by court rulings, marches and student actions — largely controlled the pace and scope of racial change.

As the city commemorates the 50th anniversary of desegregation, some people are still upset about how it happened here.

For Hemphill Pride II, a 76-year-old black attorney who joined Matthew Perry’s law practice in 1963, it comes down to this: “You perpetuated the system we lived in all of our lives, and you’re going to tell us when the time is right?”

Court Rulings Not Enough

Between 1960 and 1963, the political winds shifted quickly on the question of segregation. But the tipping point had been a long time coming. Blacks had attempted to vote in South Carolina’s Democratic Primary in 1946. President Truman had desegregated the U.S. military in 1948. The Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had formally struck down state laws creating segregated schools in 1954 — but its effects on the ground were not immediate, either in schools or in other public spaces.

One month after the Brown v. Board decision, a 20-year-old black domestic worker from Eastover named Sarah Mae Flemming boarded a bus in Columbia; the driver accused her of sitting in a whites-only area and forcibly ejected her at the corner of Main and Washington streets. In February 1955, the NAACP filed a lawsuit on her behalf, Sarah Mae Flemming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas.

Flemming lost the case in front of an all-white jury in federal court in Columbia, but the case was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which issued a ruling that struck down segregation on city buses. Matthew Perry joined the case in its later stages, but despite the ultimately favorable ruling, the order was largely ignored. Still, Flemming’s case was later cited in the successful suit by Rosa Parks, whose own bus action in Montgomery, Ala., came 17 months later.

The Flemming case and others reflected the NAACP’s strategy at the time — the idea that the legal restrictions on blacks “could be negotiated and ultimately resolved in the courts,” Donaldson says.

Meanwhile, students were ahead pushing for changes that the courts hadn’t delivered on.

“The students are frustrated,” Donaldson says. “They’re like, ‘We have all these laws and no change.’ That’s where they begin to push much more aggressively than the NAACP was prepared to push at that time.”

In Columbia, student activists led a string of sit-ins and protests starting in 1960 that forced the hands of white politicians and black leaders alike. In February, Allen and Benedict students held rallies to protest segregation. On March 2, 1960, about 50 students conducted sit-ins at Woolworth and S.H. Kress; the next day, nearly 200 students marched downtown, and businesses closed their doors to avoid the disruption.

Hollings’ Hollow Threat

About a week after that action, Gov. Hollings warned students at Benedict College and Allen University that they faced arrest if they carried through with plans for a march on the State House.

“He came on television in 1960 and more or less said to students, ‘I dare you to protest,’” Donaldson says. “He went on camera and said, ‘Not now, not here.’” Responding to a statement by President Eisenhower that minorities had a right to demonstrate, Hollings said the president had “done great damage to peace and order.”

Black college leaders were in a tough spot. Even if they were privately supportive of the students’ goals, they were dependent on the support of the white establishment. And in the late 1950s, both schools had come under fire for “being incubators of communist conspirators,” Donaldson says. “That’s in part why these presidents are very reluctant to do anything.”

The presidents of both schools made statements against the planned march, and the group that organized it, the South Carolina Student Movement Association, called it off.

Students, too, were under great pressure not to protest. A common attitude among their parents was, ‘Yes, we want change — but we don’t want you involved.’

Parents had good reasons to be worried, Pride says. Newspapers would publish the names of students arrested. “And someone would say, ‘Is that your son? You need to talk to that boy and tell him to stay out of it.’ And what they were telling them was, ‘Your job is at stake.’ That’s the way it went.”

Nonetheless, Hollings’ victory was short-lived. Within days of his televised statement, students were taking action anyway.

On March 14, 1960, college students Simon Bouie and Talmadge Neal went to the restaurant section of Eckerd’s Drug Store at 1530 Main Street and waited to be served. Instead, they were charged with criminal trespassing and convicted. (Their appeal against the City of Columbia — which was combined with another case involving local students — would ultimately make it to the Supreme Court in 1964; the court ruled that individuals could not be charged with trespassing without prior warning.)

Bouie had taken inspiration from student actions in Greensboro, N.C., traveling there and talking to student leaders.

“It seemed as if the older people were afraid, didn’t believe that it could happen,” he told USC researchers. “But the impact [the Greensboro students] made on me, I knew I had to do something. If they could do it, then we could do it.”

The next day, students in Columbia and Orangeburg staged protests in both cities. At the Orangeburg protest, more than 1,000 students were hosed and gassed; 380, including the photographer Cecil Williams, were arrested.

“They took [Hollings] up on the challenge, and he was furious,” Donaldson says. “So he began to see that even the voice of the governor can’t suppress what is clearly a new movement among students to seek change.”

Actions continued. In the summer of 1960, the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, state field director of the NAACP, led protests aimed at desegregating waiting rooms and ending the whites-only policy at Sesquicentennial State Park. On March 5, 1961, two student leaders, Lennie Glover and David Carter, went to check on a sit-in at Woolworth’s; Glover was stabbed. No one was arrested, and Glover recovered.

“The students who would be arrested would be taken to the magistrate,” recalls Hemphill Pride, who became president of the Columbia branch of the NAACP in 1964. “You’d walk into the magistrate’s court, and most of the time you’d see an elderly white man ... and you’d find him in his courtroom sitting behind a desk, and behind the desk would be the South Carolina flag, the United States flag and the Confederate flag. And that flag flew not only in the magistrate’s court: It flew in the circuit court, and it flew in the South Carolina Supreme Court.”

At the time, he says, juries and nearly everyone else in the courtroom were white.

“To walk into the courtroom, the only black man in the courtroom who had a job had a broom,” Pride recalls. At every level, he says — local, state and federal — “Everything was systematically white.”

Many civil rights protests were small and localized. But on March 2, 1961, participants came from throughout the state for a big march organized by the NAACP. Black high school and college students marched along with the Rev. Newman, future congressman James Clyburn, Pride and others from Zion Baptist Church — the local hub of the civil rights movement at the time — to the State House.

“The tension was very high,” one of the marchers, James Edwards, told Free Times last month. “It was just something that had to be done.”

The march led to the case Edwards v. South Carolina, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court; Perry was the lead attorney on the case. On Feb. 25, 1963, the court ruled in favor of the students, saying that the Fourteenth Amendment did not permit South Carolina “to make criminal the expression of unpopular views.”

Even before the ruling, though, it was clear which way the political winds were blowing.

“One of the things you know about Ernest Hollings is that he’s an astute politician,” Donaldson says. “He went through what I would call a calculated change. He’s reading the newspapers. He clearly wants South Carolina to advance economically, and all around him places are blowing up — literally. He sees George Wallace in Alabama; he sees what’s going on in Mississippi and Georgia.”

On his way out of office, in January 1963, Hollings said the era of desegregation was over — and called for the process of integration to be handled “with dignity.”

Integration From Above

“With dignity,” some might say, meant with control: White politicians and business owners would control the pace and scope of change, rather than let it be dictated by the blacks protesting their second-class status.

This is exactly what happened in Columbia, according to Pride, who served on a committee set up by Columbia Mayor Lester Bates to handle the process of integration. (The committee evolved into the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, which still exists.)

As late as June 1963, Bates had been resisting calls to form such a committee. But by that time, state NAACP field director Newman was calling for massive statewide demonstrations unless cities moved to “solve racial differences.” Bates, like Hollings, couldn’t forestall change forever.

Says Donaldson: “Mayor Bates was what we call a New South politician, who on race issues had a moderate position, I suppose,” Donaldson says. “And he was one of those people who actually surrounded himself with what people called Negro advisers. Many of them were surprised at the degree to which students took on public protests, and they were on record saying, ‘We oppose.’”

As Pride recalls it, the mayor was trying to use “his Negroes” to calm the student protests down.

Bates’ main concern “was the interests of the business community, not the interests of civil rights,” Pride recalls. “So what they did was they recruited Newman and C.O. Spann from the Negro community to help put a goddamn lid on it — they wanted to stop it. So that’s why there was distrust between the students and the Negro leadership to some extent.”

“I think students trusted Judge Perry an awful lot,” Pride recalls, “and there was some trust in Newman, but there was [also] a lot of distrust, because they thought, ‘Who appointed you to sit down and negotiate on our behalf?’”

“I and many others didn’t like it, expressed dissent about it and made other Negroes who were sitting at the table very mad with us,” Pride recalls. “I will never forget: The way the mayor decided they would integrate was the Palmetto Theater on Main Street; they decided they would pick a movie and send Dr. Spann — a test case.”

Spann was a prominent doctor at Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital, and active in the NAACP. It was Spann, in fact, who had saved the life of the student Lennie Glover after he was stabbed.

Nonetheless, Pride still resents the top-down, white-led way in which integration happened in Columbia.

“That’s bulls#!t,” he says. “First of all, who told you that you could pick somebody out of our goddamn community as a test case? And who says that’s the way we want it done?”

Ultimately, though, Bates did largely control the process, with one space after another integrating in an orchestrated way, with prominent, respected blacks chosen to integrate public spaces gradually.

On Aug. 12, 1963, several leading local businesses announced that they had removed segregation signs from their water fountains, restrooms and dressing rooms and would adopt non-discriminatory hiring practices. Fifteen days later, a bomb went off near the home of Henri Monteith, the first black student admitted to the University of South Carolina; no one was hurt.

“Like Hollings, [Bates] did not want Columbia to become an explosive space like Birmingham, and decided it was in the best interests of the city to really quietly move toward desegregation,” Donaldson says. “And he thought it would be in Columbia’s interest if it would be uneventful. So, literally, they decided there would be a day when they would quietly desegregate, it would not be in the news, and he pulled together some businesspeople on Main Street who agreed.”

What happened in Columbia was relatively peaceful compared to how the civil rights movement unfolded in other major Southern cities.

“But we quickly [move to] patting ourselves on the back when there’s really no need,” Donaldson says. “It still was a segregated society, there were still pronounced racists in this city.” And, he says, there was still violence. “Forget about Lennie Glover being stabbed; you [also] had incidents of people being spat upon, being kicked while the cameras are not watching.”

“Some of the African-Americans I know in Columbia from that period speak of [Mayor Bates] favorably,” Donaldson says, “in part because he was not the race baiter you found in other towns and cities.”

“What motivated his moderation, I don’t altogether know,” he continues. “Like Hollings, he was a skilled politician.”

Gaining a Foothold

Growing up in Orangeburg, Luther Battiste III was no stranger to the civil rights movement. The city was an epicenter of unrest in the state, and though Battiste remembers a protected, nurturing upbringing at an all-black high school and with parents working at South Carolina State University, he also experienced the indignities of segregation — colored water fountains, exclusion from businesses, sitting in the balcony in movie theaters — and took part in the marches and protests of the 1960s.

“It was during that time that I got my exposure to Matthew Perry,” Battiste recalls. “He became sort of my hero, my role model — the iconic person in my life that I aspire to be like.”

When Battiste came to the University of South Carolina in 1967, he entered a completely different world. From an all-black high school, he was now adrift in a sea of whiteness, as he described it at the time. The school was formally integrated, but there were very few blacks on campus — and very little to make those who were there feel welcome.

It was a tough time, he recalls. Midway through his first year, in February 1968, was the Orangeburg Massacre, an incident in which South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into a crowd of protesters trying to integrate a bowling alley. Twenty-eight people were injured, and three were killed — including a young man with whom Battiste had played junior varsity basketball. It was also the same year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed.

Inspired by the civil rights movement — and enabled by what students and the NAACP had already achieved in Columbia — Battiste worked hard to make changes at the university.

“One of the things I tried to do at Carolina was take an inside approach to making the university a better place for African-American students,” Battiste recalls. He was active in student government and in a group that brought in speakers; among those that came during that time was Muhammad Ali. He also helped write a proposal that led to the African-American Studies Department and was involved in USC’s first black fraternity.

Still, changes at USC and in the city came slowly — and not all of them worked out well. Though USC had integrated in 1963, the court-ordered desegregation of South Carolina’s public schools didn’t begin until 1970, and when it did begin, racially motivated fights in school were common. When Battiste graduated from USC’s international studies program in 1971, he was the first black student to do so. And it wasn’t until that same year that the South Carolina State Fair ended its separate “Negro Days.”

Nonetheless, there was progress. In 1970, I.S. Leevy Johnson, Herbert Fielding and James Felder became the first blacks elected to the State House since Reconstruction. Later, there were other firsts: In 1983, Battiste became one of the first two black members of City Council (the other was E.W. Cromartie II), paving the way for Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and, eventually, Mayor Steve Benjamin.

But even changes like blacks being elected to City Council didn’t happen easily or without struggle: There was a lawsuit to change the structure of Council, creating four single-member districts that would allow a candidate with support in a specific area of town to win a seat. Before the lawsuit, all the seats on Council had been at-large, making it nearly impossible for an African-American to win a seat in a white-majority city.

“Before that, we used to joke that there was one single-member district — Shandon,” Battiste says.

Gradually, Battiste says, a handful of black lawmakers and people like Ernest Finney — who became the state’s first black chief justice of the state Supreme Court in 1994 — helped cultivate statewide political influence for blacks.

A Bumpy Road, Still

Despite the progress, Donaldson points out that the civil rights movement never achieved all that it intended to. The movement was predicated not only on voting rights, but also on education, jobs, housing and other quality-of-life issues. But what it achieved was only the removal of legal barriers, not the realization of equality in other spheres of life.

“You move toward change, you move toward removing all the barriers — and then what? Then what?” Donaldson asks. “I think that’s the question we are still wrestling with.”

The movement had unforeseen consequences, too: Desegregation of schools, in particular, had unintended, negative consequences on black neighborhoods.

Going to the all-black Wilkinson High School, Battiste recalls, “One of the things they always told us was that because of racism, you’d have to work harder and do better than your white counterparts to be successful. They really took an interest in us and nurtured us and really cared about us. And a lot of people feel that when integration took place, black students lost that nurturing environment. During that time, you had the opportunity to be student body president or have positions of influence in your school system that you lost when integration took place. I believe it took some self-esteem away from students.”

Pride points out that desegregation wasn’t necessarily the remedy lawsuits were seeking, anyway — the goal, he says, was equal funding, not integration.

“What was really the neighborhood institution was gone,” Donaldson says. “Because right as you see the desegregation of those schools, and the best teachers leave to go to Dreher and Flora, the neighborhoods themselves crumble.”

In the course of the Columbia SC 63 project, Donaldson and other researchers have been interviewing many of those involved in the early ‘60s sit-ins, including Simon Bouie.

Bouie “is one of the people we talked to who said he never imagined when he was doing what he did that it would lead to the death of the black community,” Donaldson says. “That is his regret — that he had wanted to uproot discrimination and bigotry, not to uproot black neighborhoods.”

Today, even one of the basic achievements of the civil rights movement — equality at the ballot box — is under pressure as Voter ID laws add restrictions on the right to vote and the Supreme Court weighs Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires South Carolina and other states, mostly in the South, to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before changing election laws.

As for the racial climate today, Battiste is concerned.

“I think there’s a lot of hatred in South Carolina and other places for the president,” he says. “I think some of what you see taking place is motivated by that; some is just a very conservative philosophy that still seems to resonate in South Carolina. In a lot of ways, now feels like the ‘60s to me. A lot of the same racism I experienced growing up, I see it now, resurfacing — in the code words, in the voter suppression, the anti-Washington sentiment.”

Locally, though, he’s more optimistic. Battiste has often fielded calls to run for mayor himself; he’s declined, and heartily endorses the job the current mayor is doing.

“I think he is carrying the city in the right direction,” he says. “I think it’s a good time. “

Says Donaldson: “For a lot of us, Steve Benjamin serves as a great epilogue to this. But one of the things I have to stress is that there is very little in 1960 or 1961 that would ever suggest that we would be here. These are important milestones, these were important events, but change was not immediate — nor even predictable at that time. I don’t think anyone who marched on the State House in 1961 ever imagined that in their lifetime, given what they knew, that they would see a brown person sitting in City Hall, let alone the White House.”

For Donaldson, this is the takeaway: He wants people to understand that there was nothing inevitable about the progress that’s been made, and there is nothing inevitable about where things are headed in the future, either. Without an awareness of history and vigilance about the challenges that remain, it’s possible for gains to be lost and for people to fall into old, familiar patterns — and those patterns, he says, have not historically worked out well for black people.

Learn more about Columbia’s civil rights history and events commemorating it at columbiasc63.com.