ORANGEBURG — Gentle applause greeted Gov. Henry McMaster at the outset of his speech Friday at South Carolina State University’s commencement ceremony, but he quickly rankled members of audience at the mention of his political ally, President Donald Trump.
Speaking to the graduating class about the importance of never giving up in order to achieve a dream, McMaster relayed the story of his ascension to the highest executive office in the state.
“Against much advice, I supported Donald Trump who won,” McMaster said, as cries from the bleachers mounted. “Some said it was impossible — that he’d never win. He did.”
After President Trump won the election, he made former Gov. Nikki Haley his ambassador to the United Nations and McMaster, then the lieutenant governor, assumed her office.
“You never know what’s gonna happen,” McMaster said. “Set your goals and decide where you want to go and get ready because it might just happen to you.”
Nearly 500 students graduated from S.C. State on a bright and breezy Friday evening in a lively ceremony at the Oliver C. Dawson stadium. Their families and friends sitting along the stands screamed at the top of their lungs as each new graduate crossed the stage and accepted a diploma.
For many parents and relatives of graduates, McMaster’s remarks about Trump put a stain on an otherwise joyful event.
“I thought it was inappropriate,” said Alvin Josey, an uncle to one of the graduates. “Most people in this area don’t like Donald Trump. I know I don’t.”
“He could have saved it for another college,” said L.T. Montgomery, an alum. “Donald Trump is basically the polar opposite of what we stand for. Him bringing up Donald Trump, that wasn't right.”
The university’s controversial decision to invite McMaster to speak at commencement threatened to overshadow the actual ceremony. An online petition urging S.C. State to replace McMaster with a new speaker garnered more than 5,000 signatures from the around the world as of Friday.
The petition’s creator contended graduating seniors and their families felt short-changed by the university’s selection and requested a new speaker who has more in common with the “struggles as well as triumphs” of students at historically black colleges and universities.
Some students and alumni also took issue with the governor’s membership at an all-white, Columbia-area country club and his early support for Trump, who derided Mexicans and Muslims on the campaign trail.
“We want someone to come and speak to us who understand the struggles of HCBUs and the struggles of African-Americans today. And any encouragement or enlightenment he can give to support the community of HCBUs, we would appreciate,” said graduate Reggie Owens, 23, ahead of Friday’s ceremony.
“South Carolina State is one of the HBCUs that’s often overlooked, and it has had many struggles throughout its history," he added. "Every day students are here trying to prove why (HBCUs) should exist.”
Owens didn’t sign the petition, but he said he wouldn’t fault any of his fellow graduates had they chosen to protest McMaster during his speech.
Others said they wanted to avoid the scene that transpired earlier this week at Bethune-Cookman University, a HBCU in Daytona Beach, Fla., where graduates literally turned their backs on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, and heckled her throughout her 20-minute address.
“I wouldn’t want what happened at Bethune-Cookman to happen here,” said Leslie Crawford, 22, computer science and mathematics graduate. “I don’t think that’d be a good look for the university.”
“We all tried to be respectful,” said Christopher Stevens, 33, who graduated Friday with his master’s degree in transportation. “After Bethune-Cookman, you know, we didn’t try to give him a hard time.”
McMaster’s brief speech was peppered personal anecdotes about his career —first as a young attorney and later his pursuit of the governor’s office — and observations about persistence, courage and life-long learning.
“I believe in no limits. I believe in going to the top,” McMaster said. "And I’ll tell you, South Carolina, that’s where we’re going.”
Allison Dixon, 25, a social work graduate, said she genuinely appreciated the governor’s remarks despite her earlier reservations.
“It was an excellent speech. He gave wise words of wisdom to the graduating class of 2017,” she said. “(I was) kind of nervous because we didn’t know, but he did an excellent job.”