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Bernard Fielding, former judge and activist remembered as 'giant' in civil rights movement

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Bernard R. Fielding Sr. died Oct. 9. He was 88. Provided.

Bernard Rodolph Fielding Sr., a longtime Charleston-area judge, lawyer, funeral director and social justice activist, died Oct. 9. He was 88.

Fielding was a monumental figure in the civil rights movement in South Carolina and a trailblazer in the state's legal field. He was appointed associate probate judge in Charleston County in 1976, becoming the first African American to hold that position in the state.

In 1990, Fielding became the first African American elected Charleston County probate judge.

In addition to being a well-accomplished legal professional, Fielding's family remembers him as a kind, generous man who gave 100 percent to every task at hand.

“He was always willing to help somebody," said Fielding's widow, Conchita L. Fielding.

Bernard Fielding was born in Charleston, where his father opened up a funeral home in 1912. In 1928, the family business, Fielding Home for Funerals, moved to one of its three present locations at 122 Logan St. It would become Charleston's oldest Black-owned business.

Fielding would show a strong and early interest in law. After graduating from Avery Normal School, he attended Hampton University in Virginia before obtaining a law degree at Boston University. 

He traveled northeast for his studies because there were "no opportunities for him in South Carolina," where discriminatory views often kept Blacks from progressing professionally, said John Simpkins, president and chief executive officer of MDC, a North Carolina-based nonprofit.

Fielding returned home after law school and worked as a legal professional during the day and helped run the family funeral home at night and on weekends.

Bud Ferillo, a longtime South Carolina political consultant and close friend of the Fielding family, said he first met Bernard Fielding in the early '60s, when Fielding would provide legal representation for young protesters.

Ferillo, a student at Bishop England High School at the time, was one of several students who would meet in the basement of Emanuel AME Church to design anti-segregation picket signs they would hold while protesting businesses.

One of those companies was a theater owned by Ferillo's father. The business forced Blacks to sit in the gallery. 

Conchita L. Fielding remembers those days. She would often assist her husband by typing up legal paperwork for those in jail.

She recalls one night in particular when young protesters, including her nephew, were arrested. Inside her King Street home, Conchita Fielding heard the students singing a hymn.

“I could hear them singing on the bus 'We Shall Overcome' as they were on their way to jail," she said.

Bernard Fielding's advocacy is also noted in a 1968 Post and Courier article about the lawyer protesting during the dedication ceremony for the Charleston Municipal Auditorium, predecessor to the present-day Charleston Gaillard Center.

He expressed dissatisfaction that U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist who opposed civil rights for African Americans, was selected to speak.

“Some of our forefathers died on this land on which this building stands,” Fielding said at the time. “Some of us were born here and the biggest racist of them all, Sen. Thurmond, is here to dedicate it.”

Bernard Fielding would continue to denounce injustices in 1970 when he and and Ferillo took a stance against the state Democratic Party. During the party's 1970 convention, a White senator endorsed a movement that supported segregation of public schools.

Bernard suggested he and Ferillo stand up and speak out against the platform. Fielding stood, but was never called on to address the convention. Ferillo spoke and launched what he described as a "strongly worded attack" against the segregationist position. 

After taking a break, the convention resumed and voted to delete the segregationist position from the party's platform.

"If it wasn't for Bernard suggesting I grab one of the microphones, we wouldn’t have been able to force the party to recess," Ferillo said.

Reflecting on Fielding's legacy, Ferillo said, "we have lost a giant of the civil rights movement."

Fielding would continue to make an impact in the Charleston region in the following decades, inspiring future generations of lawyers and activists. He will be remembered for his commitment to economic empowerment and social justice, providing a model for other legal professionals to follow.

"He taught us that politics without economics is a symbol without substance," said State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston.

"We will be mourning his loss to this community. Particularly, the body of knowledge with respect to history that he had, will be dearly missed.”

Fielding leaves behind a wife, two children and several relatives and friends.

Graveside service will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at Unity and Friendship Society Cemetery on Cunnington Avenue downtown.

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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