Rosen’s legal genius, compassion a key legacy

No one knew better than the late Mayor J. Palmer Gaillard Jr. just how different the history of the city of Charleston would have been had Morris D. Rosen not been by his side.

It was Rosen’s legal genius that won the day when, in 1960, the city began expanding its boundaries for the first time in 111 years. Before Gaillard left office — after being elected for what then was a record four terms — the city had more than doubled its size.

It was Rosen’s wise counsel during the turbulent 1960s that helped keep Charleston from joining the ranks of the stubborn resistors to integration in ways that too often resulted in bloodshed. It also was Rosen who had a major hand in the events that led to the creation of the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

And near the end of his tenure, it was Rosen who convinced the federal courts to approve the city’s major and contentious restructuring of council. “Alderman” became a term of the past, districts were more evenly divided and the number of members reduced from 16 to 12.

You only have to read Gaillard’s biography, “Boards to Boardrooms,” to appreciate what a pivotal role that Rosen, who died Monday at age 92, played in a time of great change in Charleston.

According to the book, Rosen was among a small group of men — eight lawyers and a former mayor — who invited Gaillard to a meeting one December morning in 1958. That meeting was key in convincing the outspoken young alderman — a businessman who owned a lumber enterprise — to take on the powerful, incumbent mayor. Gaillard won the 1959 election by 445 votes, thanks, at least in part, to the fact that Rosen was among the legal experts dispatched as watchers to the most potentially troublesome precincts.

It was no surprise that Rosen, one of the city’s most distinguished, hard-working attorneys, became Gaillard’s first and only corporation counsel. His work was cut out for him virtually from the night the votes were counted. The mayor wanted to do more than talk about annexation in his inaugural address. He wanted to provide a detailed plan, complete with maps. During the five-month transition, areas had to be targeted, archaic annexation laws researched, a young legal team put together under Rosen’s direction to determine eligible petitioners (property owners known as freeholders), not to mention the countless strategy meetings and fierce opposition.

Even Gaillard says in his book it was “almost unbelievable” that less than six months after he took office the first areas were annexed and within eight months two new aldermen were elected. But the fight was far from over. New annexation elections brought lawsuits that went to the S.C. Supreme Court. The 1961 decision for the city was one of Rosen’s most important wins and allowed the administration to get on with installing the promised sewer and water lines.

There’s no question Rosen deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the peaceful handling of such volatile civil rights issues as the integration of Charleston’s municipal golf course. According to the Gaillard book, “Mr. Rosen told me from day one that the city could not win” a federal suit filed during the previous administration. The city’s strategy was to seek time to prepare the public for change, complicated by pressures on both sides and a revertor clause that would give the land back to the donors if the course were closed. After consulting with Rosen, Gaillard wrote, “We both agreed it would be foolish not to continue to operate the golf course. I quietly got word to the plaintiffs that the course would be open to all citizens 30 days earlier than the court order. This was done without fanfare and when the date [in the court order] arrived, the integration of the municipal golf course was old news.”

That’s not to say that Charleston was without incident during that period. There were marches and demonstrations in the main business district that resulted in court injunctions and what the Gaillard book describes as a “near riot” in front of the newspaper’s Columbus Street office one hot night in 1963. In addition to multiple arrests, seven demonstrators and one police officer were injured.While tensions were high and help was sought from the governor, cool heads were negotiating behind the scenes.

Elliott Halio, who was an associate municipal judge at the time, told the overflow gathering at the funeral Wednesday that it was Morris Rosen and the esteemed civil rights attorney Matthew J. Perry — who later became a federal judge — who kept the city from bloodshed, riots and chaos.

A less visible example of Rosen’s significant influence was his successful fight to force the state highway department to pay for condemning city property, which wound up financing an addition to the then small municipal airport. Without that building, the Federal Aviation Authority had threatened to give a critical new radar system to another city. Without that system there was reason to fear the city would lose its commercial airline business. Rosen would later be the key author of legislation that made the operation of the airport a shared responsibility of the county’s major political entities.

But it was the law, not politics, that was Morris Rosen’s passion and it kept him going to the office until his 90th year. He was remembered Wednesday not only as a brilliant lawyer, but as a mentor to the young, sending business and encouragement their way. Attorney Henry B. Smythe Jr., whose father was assistant corporation counsel, noted that Rosen’s 60-year legal career covered a broad spectrum. He was, Smythe said, sought by the well-off and available to the not-so-well-off.

Over his remarkable career his colleagues honored him with virtually every local and state professional award. His national recognition included membership in the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. The style that for generations made him the most respected and beloved member of the legal community never changed. He remained the unassuming, compassionate, hard-working family man, who gave time to his community, including the College of Charleston, and made time to take colleagues to lunch on a regular basis — Halio for more than 45 years.

They talked about the law and their families, Halio said. “But we always came back to the law.”

When he died last week, his community turned out in force to pay him tribute. In her eulogy, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim quoted from a note sent to one of Rosen’s sons by a woman to whom his father had shown kindness and encouragement when she was a young lawyer. According to the note, her husband had recently died and grief and loss were much on her mind. So was Morris Rosen when she wrote:

“The one thing I concluded for certain was that while we are all merely vapors in the wind destined to appear for but a little while, there are some people who blow so strongly that they change not only our lives but the lives of generations.”

Barbara S. Williams is editor emeritus of The Post and Courier.