Civil Right Demonstration. Richland Library.

Civil Rights Movement

South Carolina heralds the moderation of its leadership during the civil rights era, especially when compared to the actions of leaders in other Deep South states. Moderate leaders put accommodation over confrontation and worked within the legal framework. But these same leaders also did all they could to manipulate the government and the legal system to forestall civil rights.

During Reconstruction, South Carolina experimented briefly with interracial democracy. African American males voted and participated in government on the local, state, and federal level as officeholders and appointed officials. A new state constitution of 1868 expanded civil rights and women’s rights, and instituted public education. Reconstruction in South Carolina lasted longer than in any other state, and South Carolina’s black Republicans achieved as great a degree of political power as did African Americans elsewhere. These circumstances evaporated, however, following the overthrow of Republican rule in the state elections of 1876. With the reestablishment of conservative white rule, legislators spent the next several decades undermining the gains of Reconstruction. In education, they resegregated the University of South Carolina and drastically cut support for black schools. On the economic front, because so many white and black landless families became sharecroppers and tenants after the Civil War, Democrats repealed laws favorable to tenants and instituted lien laws to favor landowners and merchants. Politicians went beyond custom and wrote employment discrimination into South Carolina law. The textile industry, a major employment opportunity for the landless and the jobless in the postbellum South, developed as a whites-only labor enterprise.

The Democratic Party’s white elite also worked to disfranchise black voters in South Carolina, beginning with the notorious Eight Box Law of 1882, which reduced the number of black voters from 58,000 in 1880 to less than 14,000 by 1888. In the 1890s Benjamin Ryan Tillman gained control of the Democratic Party, with a regime that was as racist and as committed to white supremacy as any in the South. Tillman forces avowed their intention to disfranchise African Americans by rewriting the state constitution, which they did in 1895. The following year the State Democratic Executive Committee prohibited all African Americans from voting in the primary, which was, in a one-party system, the only election that mattered. African Americans were effectively disfranchised for the next sixty-five years. As late as 1940 only 3,000 African Americans in South Carolina were registered to vote.

During the 1930s and 1940s African Americans such as the journalist John McCray, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader I. DeQuincey Newman, the activist Modjeska Simkins, and others encouraged sustained activism as a means of effecting racial change. Esau Jenkins, a black businessman from Charleston, with help from the NAACP activist and native Charlestonian Septima Clark, the Highlander Folk School founder Myles Horton (white), the beautician Bernice Robinson, and Guy and Candie Carawan (whites who moved to Johns Island) began citizenship schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s to help African Americans obtain the right to vote, learn about legal rights and strategies for civil disobedience, and fight white supremacy. These schools became an effective tool of the civil rights movement, encouraging thousands to take part in demonstrations.

In the 1940s both supporters and opponents of segregation stepped up their efforts to maintain or challenge the racial status quo in South Carolina. During World War II the state did not allow absentee ballots for those in the armed services because they wanted to exclude African American soldiers from voting. In 1944 the South Carolina legislature passed a resolution denouncing any “amalgamation” of the races. It further resolved an affirmation of “White Supremacy as now prevailing in the South” and pledged “lives and our sacred honor to maintain it, whatever the cost, in War and Peace.” At the war’s end, the brutal beating of the U.S. veteran Isaac Woodard in South Carolina spurred President Harry Truman toward civil rights and influenced Truman’s 1948 order to end the segregation of all military facilities. This executive order had an extensive impact in South Carolina, with its numerous facilities.

In 1942 a small group of African American activists organized the South Carolina Negro Citizens Committee to raise money to challenge the white primary. When in 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the white primary, South Carolina led the way in devising other means to keep African Americans out of the Democratic primary. When the NAACP challenged the “private” primary in federal court, Judge J. Waties Waring of Charleston ruled that because the Democratic primary was the vehicle through which all public officials were chosen, it remained a state action and that excluding some citizens from primary elections violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Democratic Party then extended the literacy test required for general elections to the primary. Furthermore, they would allow qualified African Americans to vote only if they swore an oath: to support “the social, religious, and educational separation of the races.” In 1948, in Brown v. Baskin, Waring overturned that allowance and issued a court order that voting “be opened to all parties irrespective of race, color, creed or condition.”

By 1944 a statewide African American protest organization had been organized: the Progressive Democratic Party led by John McCray. This group unsuccessfully challenged the seating of South Carolina’s all-white delegation at the 1944 Democratic National Convention; it also sponsored Osceola McKaine as a candidate for the U.S. Senate against the Democrat Olin Johnston. The Progressive Democrats and the NAACP mounted a registration drive that increased the number of black voters on the rolls to 50,000 by 1946. Despite Ku Klux Klan marches and cross burnings, 35,000 black voters went to the polls in the 1948 primary, the same year that Governor Strom Thurmond headed the “Dixiecrat” Party in protest of the civil rights plank of the Democratic Party. In 1950 African Americans provided the margin of victory for New Dealer Olin Johnston over Strom Thurmond for the Senate.

At this time Governor James F. Byrnes began to move the state toward a sophisticated, “moderate” approach in resisting racial integration. During his campaign for governor, he recommended gerrymandering school districts according to segregated residential patterns. To forestall integration, Byrnes used a significant portion of a new sales tax for the education of African American children, and white leaders throughout the state began equalizing the facilities of white and black schools in an attempt to maintain segregation. Byrnes went so far as to recommend that South Carolina eliminate from its constitution the provision for public schools, which it did. Byrnes also created the so-called segregation committee, chaired by state representative L. Marion Gressette. This special school committee coordinated efforts to maintain the racial status quo. The South Carolina legislature even passed a resolution that gave itself the right to nullify or overrule federal laws. This technique of bending a little to prevent larger changes gave the state another decade of segregation. By 1963 only Mississippi and South Carolina had not even token integration of schools.

Believing that education was a key to freedom, African Americans made separate and unequal education the foremost target of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. In the early 1940s the NAACP brought court cases to equalize teachers’ salaries. Black South Carolinians’ most dramatic and influential success against institutionalized white racism involved the Briggs v. Elliot case against the Summerton School District of Clarendon County. In his ruling on this case, Judge Waring was the first federal judge to render an opinion that segregation was unconstitutional when he dissented in favor of the African American plaintiffs. This case culminated in the Brown decision, which eventually outlawed segregated schools. The South Carolina parents who brought this suit, who wanted a decent education for their children, suffered mightily for their efforts, and their leader, the Reverend Joseph Alfred DeLaine, had to flee the state as a fugitive. In 1974, the year the exiled DeLaine passed away, the school district where he started that lawsuit had three thousand black children and one white child attending public schools. In response to integration, the state allowed students to attend schools in any district where the parents owned any amount of property. Most school districts did not integrate until 1971, and in some areas private segregation academies continued to attract white students into the twenty-first century.

South Carolina heralds the moderation of its leadership during the civil rights era, especially when compared to the actions of leaders in other Deep South states. Moderate leaders put accommodation over confrontation and worked within the legal framework. But these same leaders also did all they could to manipulate the government and the legal system to forestall civil rights. Just as the South Carolina attorney general’s office had adamantly defended the principles of public school segregation before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, the South Carolina congressional delegation resolutely and unanimously opposed every civil rights bill proposed to Congress into the 1960s. Senator Thurmond mounted a record filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. South Carolina also led the challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act in South Carolina v. Katzenbach. In denying that challenge and affirming the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that South Carolina’s history of white supremacy and racial discrimination at the ballot box justified the intrusive measures provided by the act.

South Carolina whites bitterly opposed federal court decisions on integration. As demands for justice grew in the African American community, white backlash inexorably followed. In 1957, in the Orangeburg County town of Wells, seventeen white men attacked a sixty-year-old black farmhand. The Holly Hill magistrate fined the leader of the white mob $50 for disorderly conduct and charged the farmhand with assault and battery for trying to defend himself. Freedom riders confronted their first problems in South Carolina. In 1961, when the freedom riders first headed south to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s 1959 ruling on the integration of interstate transportation facilities, trouble occurred in Rock Hill. There, the seminarian John Lewis (later a congressman from Georgia) entered a “white only” waiting room at the bus terminal, and white youths beat both Lewis and his white traveling companion.

In the 1950s African Americans formed another organization to promote civil rights in South Carolina, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). James McCain, the former head of the Black Teacher’s Association in South Carolina, organized seven CORE groups throughout the state to work on voter registration. CORE later proved instrumental in the South Carolina sit-in movement. Despite the urging of CORE’s national leadership that he enlist as many whites as possible, McCain found that joining an interracial civil rights organization, or even supporting a black voter registration drive, was unthinkable for most white Carolinians. CORE and the NAACP had some rivalry, but the two organizations eventually worked out a tacit division of the state.

At the same time that organizations were working in the educational and political arenas, the civil rights movement developed a third agenda: integration of day-to-day services. The student sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, moved next to South Carolina, where students sat-in at lunch counters in Rock Hill in February 1960. Students in South Carolina engaged in demonstrations for the next three years and went to jail throughout the state. Charleston retained segregated lunch counters as late as June 1963, refusing to change until after it suffered through turbulent rioting.

White Citizens’ Councils, most active in those parts of the state where African Americans were the majority, tended to focus their animosity on the NAACP, the catalyst for most African American lawsuits in desegregation cases. Dedicated teachers such as Septima Clark lost their jobs and their retirement benefits when they would not forgo their NAACP membership. Other NAACP members and their relatives were also fired, and in some cases African American leaders had to flee the state to avoid violence and legal prosecution. In 1956 the General Assembly adopted laws making NAACP members ineligible for state employment, requiring investigation of NAACP activity at the traditionally black South Carolina State College, and revising the state’s barratry laws for use against NAACP attorneys who fought for civil rights litigation. CORE organizer Frank Robinson was also a target, forced out of his real estate and home-building business when local banks cut off his credit because of his voter-registration activities.

Despite the insistence of some Carolinians on white supremacy, some progress occurred during the 1960s. In January 1963 Harvey Gantt peacefully desegregated Clemson University, and in the fall of that year African American students desegregated the University of South Carolina. By 1965 every public and many private colleges had admitted African American students. Under court order in August 1963, eleven African American children entered previously all-white schools in District 20 in the city of Charleston, the first school district in the state to desegregate. Through freedom-of-choice plans and other stalling mechanisms, it was not until 1971 that most public schools in the state integrated.

Nor was violence from angry whites entirely eliminated. In 1968 in Orangeburg, law enforcement officers shot thirty African American students, killing three. These students from Claflin College and South Carolina State College had been protesting a segregated bowling alley. Two year later, in Lamar, two hundred white men armed with ax handles, chains, and stones stormed three school buses transporting African American students to the high school.

South Carolina whites continued efforts to keep black registration down and sometimes did not count all the votes cast by African Americans. South Carolina had no elected black officials in 1965. Yet, thanks to earlier civil rights activity, thirty-seven percent of eligible African Americans that year were already registered to vote. The passage of two landmark federal laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the enforcement of the one- person, one-vote rule in redistricting dramatically changed the face of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. The Voting Rights Act eliminated literacy tests and allowed African Americans to register in record numbers. By 1967 black voter registration had climbed to fifty-one percent of the age-eligible population. These voters demanded more progressive leadership and politics. Almost immediately the white-supremacist rhetoric that had been a hallmark of the state’s political leaders for more than a century was eliminated. By and large, South Carolina’s white officials grudgingly conceded, as in the rest of the South, that the Voting Rights Act made it impossible to prevent African American citizens from registering and casting their ballots.

The increase in black voters should have delivered more influence in local politics and the election of black candidates, but this did not materialize because political power in South Carolina was not responsive to the local electorate. A system of legislative county government, which the Tillman forces had established for disfranchisement in the 1890s, had abolished county and township elections because conservative whites disliked the association between elected local governments and the African American citizenry. The power of legislative delegations over county government remained largely intact from 1895 until 1965, effectively eliminating the opportunity of African Americans to elect local officials of their choice, even in places where they were an overwhelming majority of the population. In December 1965 a federal court ordered the S.C. Senate to redistrict according to the one-person, one-vote principle. Although conservative white legislators attempted to devise redistricting plans to minimize the chances of electing African American legislators, the Voting Rights Act brought enormous change to South Carolina politics. In 1970 James L. Felder and I. S. Leevy Johnson of Columbia and Herbert U. Fielding of Charleston became the first African Americans elected to the General Assembly since the turn of the century. Between 1974 and 1989 there was an increase in the proportion of African Americans elected to county councils, city councils, and school boards. Most of this increase resulted from the change from at-large to single-member district plans brought about by litigation under the Voting Rights Act. As the civil rights movement shifted from protest to politics and litigation, the major changes in civil rights with an enfranchised black electorate have occurred in the legislatures and in the courtroom–not as dramatic as protests and demonstrations, but just as significant.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the protest movement attempted to tackle economic issues. Only enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 integrated the cotton mills, although most mill villages remained residentially segregated. In 1969 African American hospital workers in Charleston, mostly women, went on strike for one hundred days. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Ralph Abernathy supported the strike, and the workers won some concessions. The national news media compared the Charleston strike to the sanitation strike in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr., had been killed the year before.

South Carolina at the start of the twenty-first century was not the South Carolina of turn-of-the-century Jim Crowism or of the civil rights activities of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Legal barriers that minimized African American participation are disappearing, and many younger blacks and whites do not remember blatant segregation. Because of enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, African Americans today freely register to vote. The NAACP worked successfully to create a “black” congressional district, and in 1992 South Carolinians elected an African American, James Clyburn, to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. These gains, however, have come from enforcement of federal laws, not from white leadership within the state. The civil rights movement in South Carolina and the nation also inspired other groups to demand their rights, including people with disabilities, women, and gays and lesbians.

Bass, Jack, and Walter DeVries. The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence since 1945. 1976. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Burton, Orville Vernon. “‘The Black Squint of the Law’: Racism in South Carolina.” In The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr., edited by David R. Chesnutt and Clyde N. Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

–––. “South Carolina.” In The Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965–1990, edited by Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973. Quint, Howard H. Profile in Black and White: A Frank Portrait of South

Carolina. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs, 1958. Sproat, John G. “‘Firm Flexibility’: Perspectives on Desegregation in South

Carolina.” In New Perspectives on Race and Slavery in America: Essays in Honor of Kenneth M. Stampp, edited by Robert H. Abzug and Stephen E. Maizlish. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Civil Rights Movement
  • Author
  • Keywords Reconstruction, one-vote rule, NAACP, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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