South Carolina profiles in political courage

People join hands in prayer as thousands of marchers meet on Charleston's main bridge in a show of unity after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Since 1960 South Carolina as a state and South Carolinians as a people have faced moments of decision. The recent horror in Charleston marks the third time in our recent history that our state’s political leaders have had to deal with issues and events that they never had imagined would occur in their lifetimes. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum across the American South. It had been building for a decade beginning with the turmoil at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; Gov. George Wallace’s standing in the school house door in Tuscaloosa; and Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi bellowing defiance at Ole Miss. There were demonstrations across the American South in Columbia, Raleigh, Atlanta, and dozens of other cities. There was violence in Oxford, Tallahassee, Birmingham and Selma.

In 1961, Gov. Fritz Hollings, elected on a segregationist platform in 1958, told reporters off the record that they needed to prepare readers for the end of segregation. Harvey Gantt, a young African American from Charleston, had applied for admission to Clemson. The issue would be decided in the courts, but the governor made it plain that the state’s legal defenses would “collapse like a house of cards.” In January 1963, as he left office Hollings made a farewell speech to the General Assembly: “As we meet, South Carolina is running out of courts. If and when every legal remedy has been exhausted, this General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men. As determined as we are, we of today must realize the lessons of 100 years ago, and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States.”

In just six years the state faced another moment of decision. Federal courts intervened here as elsewhere in the South and ordered school districts totally desegregated. In a televised speech, Gov. Robert E. McNair dumbfounded national news commentators and segregationists alike when he said, “I will oppose any attempts to close down the schools. The only way that South Carolina is going to continue to grow is through its educational programs” and, regarding potential troublemakers, he warned: “A society can’t continue to operate without obedience of the law. When we run out of courts and time we must adjust to the circumstances.” Across the state, business and community leaders supported the governor.

On June 17, an individual murdered nine South Carolinians as they studied the Bible in their church. As that horror enveloped the state, Gov. Nikki Haley held a press conference on June 22. She noted that after “contentious debate,” but with bipartisan support, the Confederate flag had been removed from the dome of the Statehouse and from the House and Senate chambers in 2000. Flanked by individuals with long-held and differing opinions on the flag, she said: “Today, we stand here in a moment of unity in our state without ill-will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds. A hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the time has come. There will be some in our state who see this as a sad moment. I respect that ... But, this is a moment in which we can say that that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state ...”

Across the state, business, religious and education leaders, the media, sports figures, and literally thousands of ordinary Carolinians rallied behind her stand.

Hollings, McNair, and Haley — three South Carolina governors’ actions, words and deeds made a difference. They each faced a signal moment in our state’s history. What they said and did was not always popular. After his speech, many pundits said Fritz Hollings couldn’t get elected dog-catcher in any town in the state. Governors of Deep South states held a conference and pointedly did not ask Bob McNair because he refused to close the state’s school house doors — as they wanted to do. Nikki Haley had been castigated privately and publicly — and in one particularly nasty national commentary as an “immigrant” who did not understand American history.

Is there something that connects these three very different individuals and their times? Yes. As Gov. Haley noted in her remarks: “On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history.” That thread links all three of these governors — and those who backed what for their times were bold moves. None of these three governors made their decisions lightly. In speaking out as they did, they made statements and took actions that ran counter to many of their supporters. But they decided to act in what they believed was the best interest of the state. They argued for unity and harmony, for compassion and understanding. When I reflect on their challenges and what they decided to do, I am reminded of the words of the great poet Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

For millennia historians and philosophers have debated the question: Does the individual make the times or the times the individual? The question focuses on how a person dealt, not with easy decisions, but with challenges — without regard to his or her personal well-being.

In these three governors of South Carolina our state has individuals who have demonstrated to South Carolinians and the world the best of what South Carolina can be. They are models for political profiles in courage.

Walter B. Edgar, a historian, is an emeritus member of the faculty at the University of South Carolina.