Journalist, biographer, educator. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Jack Bass is the youngest of seven children born to Nathan and Esther (Cohen) Bass. His father Nathan Bass emigrated from Lithuania and moved to the town of North, South Carolina, after marrying Esther Cohen, a Polish immigrant from Brooklyn, New York. Bass became the sixth member of his family to attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1956. While at USC he served as chief editor for the school newspaper, the Gamecock, and worked as an intern for the sports department of the Charleston News and Courier. In 1957 Bass married his first wife Carolyn McClung. After graduation he served for three and a half years as a naval flight officer, stationed primarily in San Diego. In 1960 Bass returned to Charleston, taking a position with the Charleston News and Courier where his journalistic focus switched from sports to politics.
In 1961 Bass moved back to Columbia, working for the Columbia Record before moving to the State as part of their governmental affairs staff. While in that position, Bass became interested in the changing politics of the South in connection with the civil rights movement, a major theme in his writing. In 1965 he received a Nieman Fellowship for journalism from Harvard University. As part of his fellowship, he studied current constitutional issues and American constitutional development at the Harvard School of Government.
In 1966, after completion of his fellowship, Bass accepted a position as Columbia Bureau chief for the Charlotte Observer, a position he held for seven years during the height of the civil rights movement. Bass reported on the tragedy of the Orangeburg Massacre as it unfolded on the campus of South Carolina State College on February 8, 1968 with fellow journalist Jack Nelson, Atlanta Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Bass’s coverage of the massacre earned him the award for South Carolina Newspaperman of the Year in 1972. Collaboration between Bass and Nelson later produced The Orangeburg Massacre (1970), an account of the event unveiling governmental cover-ups and highlighting journalistic misinformation. Although both authors received positive reviews from critics and historians, the book met with considerable public backlash that limited its distribution. De- spite its controversial release, however, Bass and Nelson’s work became the definitive account of the massacre and its aftermath.
From 1967–71 Bass entered the academic field as a part-time lecturer in journalism at the University of South Carolina and began work on his second book, Porgy Comes Home: South Carolina after Three Hundred Years. The book, published by the R. L. Bryan Company of Columbia (1972), details the history of South Carolina from settlement through the civil rights era.
In 1973 Bass accepted a position as a visiting research scholar in the Institute of Policy Science and Public Affairs at Duke University to work on his third book, a follow-up to V. O. Key’s foundational 1941 volume Southern Politics: State and Nation. Bass received Ford and Rockefeller Foundation grants to complete his research on Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence since 1945 (1976) co-authored with Walter DeVries. This state-by-state analysis of eleven southern states focuses on political and societal changes and features extensive data and interviews.
In 1974 Bass gained an insider’s view of the U.S. political system working with Congressman Brian Dorne during the latter’s failed bid for the office of South Carolina governor. From 1975 to 1978 Jack Bass served as writer-in-residence and research scholar at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, while concurrently completing his Masters of Arts in journalism at the University of South Carolina (awarded in 1976). During this time Bass became a frequent non-staff correspondent for several prestigious newspapers and journals including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Life.
In 1978 Jack Bass returned to Columbia and unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat for the Second Congressional District against Congressman Floyd Spence. Following the election, he became the director of American South Special Projects at the University of South Carolina where he worked for five years producing the fourteen-part television course The American South Comes of Age. Soon after, Bass produced his fourth book Unlikely Heroes: The Dramatic Story of the Southern Judges of the Fifth Circuit who Translated the Supreme Court Brown Decision into a Revolution for Equality (1981), which focuses on four judges: Chief Judge Elbert Tuttle, John Minor Wisdom, John Robert Brown, and Richard Rives. Unlikely Heroes examines the Federal Fifth Circuit Court’s ruling on landmark cases like Brown v. The Board of Education and the impact those decisions had in shaping southern politics and race relations.
In 1984 Bass married his second wife Alice R. Calsaniss and, three years later, accepted a position as professor of journalism for the University of Mississippi, where he worked for twelve years. In 1993 Bass published Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South’s Fight over Civil Rights, devoted to Johnson’s precedent-setting decisions as federal judge for Alabama. In this volume, Bass documents Judge Johnson’s rulings as integral to the civil rights movement, citing landmark cases beginning with Browder v. Gayle (1956), which integrated public transit in Montgomery by declaring segregation unconstitutional. The book received the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
In 1994 Bass married South Carolina author and television personality Nathalie Dupree. Bass completed his doctorate in American studies from Emory University in 1998. His dissertation, A Biography of Strom Thurmond, served as the basis for his work with Marilyn W. Thompson entitled Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond, published in 1998 by Longstreet Press and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The biography quickly became the definitive text on the controversial southern senator.
In 2000, Bass accepted a position at the College of Charleston, where he currently serves as a professor of humanities and social science. After Strom Thurmond’s death in 2003, he and Thompson paired up again for a second book on Thurmond entitled Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond, published in 2005.
In 2009 Bass’s eighth book, The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina was published by the University of South Carolina Press. The book, co-authored by W. Scott Poole, outlines the unique political and cultural history of South Carolina and the effects that the state’s past has had on its modern identity and culture. In 2011 Bass received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities from the Humanities CouncilSC for outstanding achievement in humanities research, teaching, and scholarship.
His ninth book, Justice Abandoned (Pantheon, 2012), returns to a discussion of constitutional law, focusing on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the fourteenth amendment. In 2013 the South Carolina Academy of Authors inducted Bass in recognition of his distinguished contributions to South Carolina’s literary legacy.
Epps, Edwin C. Literary South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Hub City Writers Project, 2004. Jack Bass, interview by Ferrel Guillory, 15 April 2011, Southern Oral History Program Collection at the Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.