Legislator. L. Marion Gressette was born near St. Matthews on February 11, 1902, to John Thomas Gressette and Rosa Emily Wannamaker. He graduated from St. Matthews High School and received a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1924. Gressette married Florence Beach Howell of Florence on August 18, 1927. Lawrence Marion Gressette, Jr., was born to the couple in 1932.
Gressette served state government as a legislator for more than a half century. He represented Calhoun County for three terms in the state House of Representatives from 1925 to 1932. He later served twenty-three terms in the South Carolina Senate from 1937 to 1984, representing Calhoun County until 1966, then Districts Nineteen, Eleven, and Thirteen after reapportionment. While in the state Senate, Gressette was a longtime member of a number of influential committees, including Judiciary (1937–1984; chairman, 1953–1984), Education (1939–1984; chairman, 1951–1956), Natural Resources(1941–1953; chairman, 1945–1950), Rural Electrification (1942–1975), and many others. He served as president pro tempore of the S.C. Senate from 1972 to 1984. His powers of oratory and persuasion, as well as his silver hair, led colleagues to dub him the “Gray Fox.”
Gressette earned special notoriety for his role in the debate over school desegregation. From 1951 to 1966, Gressette chaired a special legislative committee that led legal efforts to avoid desegregation in South Carolina. His influence on this committee was so strong that it came to be called the “Gressette Committee.” In addition, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he worked to preserve the status quo by rejecting many new bills before they reached the state Senate floor. His reputation for such action led some to call his committee “Gressette’s Graveyard.” Finally, as a protector of state sovereignty against the federal government, Gressette successfully prevented ratification of the federal equal rights amendment by South Carolina in 1978. Commenting on his staunch conservatism, a reporter from the Charlotte Observer once described Gressette as “the 20th century embodiment of the conservative lawyer-planter class who ruled South Carolina before the Civil War.”
The onset of the civil rights movement and the inevitability of integration, however, forced Gressette to soften his hard-line views. For example, when Clemson College faced integration in 1963, he urged acceptance by his colleagues by saying, “We may have lost the battle but not the war. But this war cannot be won by violence or inflammatory speeches. I have preached peace and good order for too long to change my thinking.” Similarly, at the 1970 state Democratic convention, Gressette experienced integration firsthand as he sat with an integrated delegation from Calhoun County. Following reapportionment, Gressette actively campaigned in his heavily black state Senate district. After part of Orangeburg County was added to his district, he became a legislative patron of South Carolina State College, the state’s leading traditionally black institution of higher learning,
Gressette received much recognition for his contributions to South Carolina as his life neared the end. He was named Legislator of the Year by the Greenville News in 1974. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of South Carolina in 1977, Clemson University in 1980, and the Citadel in 1981. Gressette died in of heart failure on March 1, 1984, and was buried in the West End Cemetery in St. Matthews.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.