(March 3, 1970). The Lamar Riots, the most violent act against court-ordered school desegregation in South Carolina, occurred when a mob of angry white parents armed with ax handles, bricks, and chains overturned two school buses that had delivered black students to Lamar elementary and high schools in Darlington County.
In January 1970 the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered the Darlington County schools to immediately increase integration among students and teachers. The court had struck down the county’s 1965 “freedom of choice” plan that allowed whites and blacks to attend schools of their choice. But in Lamar, a rural community of 1,350 people, one elementary school had nine black students and a high school had ten black students. On the other side of town Spaulding elementary and high schools had no white students. The court ordered that integration take place no later than February 18, 1970. White parents said that the court should wait until the following school year to put the order into effect. They were further enraged by the county’s school attendance zones. Allegedly, lines were drawn to keep the children of prominent white residents out of black schools.
The building contractor and restaurant owner Jeryl Best led the white opposition, Citizen for Freedom of Choice, which pushed for a boycott to close the schools. They hoped that if low attendance closed the schools the county would have no choice but to reopen them under the freedom-of-choice plan. Black parents were urged to keep their children out of the schools unless the federal courts promised protection.
On March 3 about 150 to 200 men and women clashed with about 150 South Carolina highway patrolmen and agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Demonstrators and police received minor injuries, and flying glass cut some students when the mob smashed the bus windows. One rioter fired a gunshot during the thirty-five-minute fight. Police responded by firing tear gas into the crowd. Of the forty men charged after the riot, three were sentenced to jail.
Two days after the riot, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said that the “violence was aimed unbelievably . . . at children who are innocent participants in the court-ordered desegregation of a Southern school district.” He promised that those responsible “will be brought to the bar of justice.” The violence at Lamar was the first major test of the Nixon administration’s policy in handling segregationist violence against southern blacks. But some argued that the White House did not do enough at Lamar, either during or after the riot. U.S. marshals looked on as highway patrolmen and SLED agents fought the mob. The day after the riot, National Guardsmen were at the school to keep the peace.
Bass, Jack. “White Violence in Lamar.” New Republic 162 (March 28, 1970): 10–12.
McIlwain, William F. “On the Overturning of Two School Buses in Lamar, S.C.” Esquire 75 (January 1971): 98–103, 162–64.