Defeating his one-time hero Cole Blease, Johnston was elected governor in 1934. “This marks the end of ring rule,” Johnston declared at his January 1935 inauguration.
Governor, U.S. senator. Olin Johnston was born on November 18, 1896, on the outskirts of Honea Path, an upcountry mill town, and raised in the countryside by tenant farming parents Ed and Leila Johnston. Like many of their generation, the family left the farm for the factory. This change shaped Johnston for the rest of his life. He would always see himself as a “mill boy,” and mill hands, by far the state’s largest group of white workers, would always see him as one of them. Johnston was fourteen years old when he heard Cole Blease on the stump “raising Cain.” He said he knew then he would be governor of South Carolina. Elected twice to the governor’s office and four times to the U.S. Senate, Johnston became one of the most durable figures in twentieth-century South Carolina politics.
When Johnston was eleven, he left the mill school and started to work in the factory. He still managed to earn a high school diploma, attending classes at Spartanburg’s Textile Industrial Institute during the day and tending looms at night. After graduation in 1915, he continued to work even after he enrolled at Wofford College. Halfway through his sophomore year, in 1917, Johnston left school for the U.S. Army, seeing action in Europe with the famed 42nd “Rainbow” Division. He returned home a decorated veteran and went right back to school and right back to work. He completed his degree at Wofford in 1921 then moved to Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina.
In 1922, while still a student, Johnston was elected by Anderson County to the state House of Representatives. Two years later, as he wrapped up his first term in the General Assembly, Johnston completed the requirements for his master of arts and law degrees from the University of South Carolina. That same year, on December 28, 1924, he married Gladys Elizabeth Atkinson. Over the next four decades, Gladys became Olin’s most trusted advisor and mother of their three children.
The Johnstons moved to Spartanburg, where Olin opened a law practice. He made his living defending workers against evictions and trying to win them fair compensation for injuries suffered on the job. In 1926 and 1928, he was again elected to the state House, this time from Spartanburg. During these two terms, Johnston earned a reputation as an active lawmaker, a friend of the working man, and a fierce opponent of what he called “ring rule.”
In 1930 Johnston ran for governor. Some thought the six-foot four-inch lawyer, with jet-black hair and a booming voice was too inexperienced. Promising to end “the economic slavery of the masses,” Johnston surprised everyone, winning the largest number of votes in the first primary. But Ibra C. Blackwood defeated him by the slimmest of margins in the run-off. Over the next four years, Johnston prepared for another run for governor. During this time, the nation’s political mood shifted sharply. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was elected president and soon after launched the New Deal. Johnston jumped on the New Deal bandwagon and stayed there.
Defeating his one-time hero Cole Blease, Johnston was elected governor in 1934. “This marks the end of ring rule,” Johnston declared at his January 1935 inauguration. Over the next four years, he led a modest reform movement in the state, starting an ambitious rural electrification program, spearheading the passage of the state’s first workers’ compensation act and several other pro-labor measures, and establishing the state’s first department of labor. But the military takeover of the highway department in the fall of 1935 overshadowed his accomplishments. After a string of bitter disputes with the road bureau, in which Johnston charged the department with exercising “an undue influence among the people,” the governor ordered national guardsmen armed with machine guns to seize the agency. Eventually an uneasy compromise was reached, but for the rest of his career, opponents would refer to him as “Machine Gun Olin.”
Following a term in the governor’s office, Johnston set his sights on the U.S. Senate. In 1938, he took on another political legend, “Cotton Ed” Smith. Throughout the stormy contest, Johnston campaigned as a “100 percent New Dealer,” while Smith pledged to uphold states’ rights and white supremacy. Despite Roosevelt’s endorsement, Johnston lost the race. Three years later, Johnston failed in a second bid for the Senate. Yet in 1942, he was again elected governor. Part way through his term, Johnston confronted a serious challenge to the whites-only Democratic Party rule in the state. In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the white primary. In response, Johnston called a special session of the legislature where lawmakers, following his lead, erased every mention of the white primary from the state constitution. These actions made the Democratic Party a private club; a private club, Johnston wrongly hoped, free from government oversight.
Campaigning now as a stalwart defender of white supremacy, Johnston again ran for the U.S. Senate in 1944. This time he defeated the aging Smith. Johnston would be reelected to the Senate three more times. During his lengthy Washington tenure, he served on the Agriculture and Forestry, District of Columbia, and Judiciary Committees. In 1950 he was elected chair of the patronage-rich Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Using his access to government funds, he made sure towns across South Carolina had new post offices. Eventually he earned the nickname “Mr. Civil Service” because of his tireless devotion to federal employees. While in the Senate, Johnston remained a staunch racial conservative. Like nearly every southern Democrat of his generation, he opposed any and all federal efforts to weaken segregation. Yet on economic issues, he continued to vote like a New Deal liberal, backing trade unions, the extension of rural electrification, the introduction of the school lunch program, and the strengthening of the Social Security system.
When Olin Johnston died on April 18, 1965, at the age of sixty-eight, thousands of ardent supporters came to pay tribute to him. A long line of white women and men, some “with lint in their hair,” filed past his casket. They came to honor a legislator and a chief executive whom, they believed, remained throughout his life a true friend of the white working man. He was buried in the Barbers Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, Honea Path.
Faggart, Luther B. “Defending the Faith: The 1950 U.S. Senate Race in South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1992.
Huss, John E. Senator for the South: A Biography of Olin D. Johnston. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961. Johnston, Olin D. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana
Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Miller, Anthony Barry. “Palmetto Politician: The Early Political Career of Olin D. Johnston, 1896–1945.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1976.
Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Swager, Karen Klein. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Olin D. Johnston’s Political Position in the South Carolina 1962 Senatorial Race.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1998.