Hamer on Grose, 'South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights'

Philip G. Grose
Fritz Hamer

Philip G. Grose. South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. xxii + 360 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-624-8.

Reviewed by Fritz Hamer (South Carolina State Museum) Published on H-SC (January, 2007)

The Tragic Legacy of a Moderate

During the 1960s, South Carolina faced a radical new shift in its social and political culture with more grace and foresight than its sister states in the Deep South. Instead of obstructing federally mandated desegregation of public places, most South Carolina leaders slowly but quietly opened businesses and public facilities to African Americans. However, public schools followed a different and even slower pattern through the late sixties, with only a handful in scattered parts of the state willing to accept minority students. It was within this period of change that Robert McNair became the Palmetto State's chief executive in 1965, replacing outgoing Governor Donald Russell who succeeded to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant at the death of Olin D. Johnston.

In Phillip G. Grose's new biography of McNair, we learn that the Berkeley County native began developing his political skills with people of differing political positions by watching his father maneuver through local politics. In so doing, the elder McNair achieved what he believed the area needed in the Depression-deprived county. McNair honed his political skills in the South Carolina legislature by accepting the counsel of the Barnwell Ring, the old political bosses of the legislature. The advice and support of long-time politicians like Solomon Blatt and Edgar Brown quickly propelled McNair up the seniority ladder. By his mid-thirties, the young legislator had become chair of the Judiciary Committee. His rapid political rise led to his nomination for Lieutenant Governor in 1962, and with his hard campaign style and the support of the Barnwell Ring and others, McNair was elected to the second highest office in the state at age thirty-nine. Using his personal political skills and powers of persuasion that had earned him this office, McNair further developed his skills as president of the state senate. There, he made many friends and earned their support for his next campaign, which everyone assumed would be a race for governor four years later.

Once he had an electoral mandate following his 1966 victory, McNair proceeded to work through South Carolina's antiquated administrative and political structures to make improvements in the state's economy and educational system. These efforts included establishing a department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism as an agency to build up tourism in the state; reforming the liquor laws to help attract more tourism; providing better economic incentives to attract new industries; and leading an effort to improve funding for education and work toward dismantling segregated schools. This, Grose argues, was possible because McNair could maneuver through the nineteenth-century governmental structures and, using his personal approach to politics, go behind the scenes with legislators from all political factions to make deals even though "executive-branch organization was scattered and fragmented" (p. 151). Because of his political ability McNair never saw the need for structural change. The former governor recalled, "I think historically, it [the boards and commissions system] ... served us well. It provided more stability and more continuity in government" (p. 151). This contrasts sharply with the efforts of state executives over the last two decades, especially Carroll Campbell (1987-1995) and Mark Sanford (2003-present), who have instituted partial restructuring and continue to argue for further reforms of the governmental structures to make government more efficient and more accountable to the electorate.

And yet in spite of all the progressive legislation that Grose lists in the McNair administration, two events cast his tenure in a negative light and still cloud his legacy. Thus it seems curious that at the end of his study Grose claims that South Carolina and, by implication, McNair's administration "could absorb the forces and counterforces of change and not lose its equilibrium" (p. 303). But did it? On the surface it may appear that way, but underneath the social and political forces of the Palmetto State remained divided, in part because of the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but more directly because of the racial violence in Orangeburg in 1968 and the labor unrest that plagued Charleston in the wake of the 1969 hospital strike. In spite of all McNair's seeming ability to work behind the scenes with leaders of various legislative factions, he appeared unable to translate that into productive meetings with black leaders during the heights of both tragic episodes. Neither he nor his advisors seemed to view the black leaders with "radical agendas" as legitimate spokesmen for the black community. Instead, they relied on the federal judiciary to provide the legal means to deal with contentious racial issues that McNair did not want to confront publicly because of potential political damage. The result was a tragedy that might have been avoided if he had taken action earlier. Thus these two events, especially in Orangeburg, remain unresolved for most in the black community and, in the opinion of this reviewer at least, a significant number in the white community.

While Grose is correct in devoting most of the second half of his study to these two pivotal events, he relies heavily on McNair's oral history for explaining what happened in Orangeburg and Charleston. In fact, he seems to accept McNair's view that most of the blame for the tragic shootings near South Carolina State College resulted from a slow federal Justice Department who would not expedite an injunction against the All Star Bowling Alley. Located next to the State College campus, this business had continued to deny service to black students and other minority patrons. While this business became the focus of the students' ire, it was only a symptom of a much bigger problem that the campus had faced periodically for a decade. Marginalized in the state budget for decades, McNair had helped improve funding before 1968, but he seemed unwilling to deal directly with the racial discrimination that frustrated students and faculty. When he refused to use his executive powers and his own attorney general to force the bowling alley to comply with civil rights statutes, he turned to state law enforcement officers and National Guard troops to protect the premises against violence. McNair's actions only fanned the flames of discontent and resulted in deadly gun fire on the evening of February 8, 1968. And in its aftermath, with three students dead and twenty-seven others injured, several seriously, Grose still appears to accept McNair's explanation that it was radical elements among black student organizations, especially SNCC and the State College's Black Awareness Coordinating Committee (BACC), that were responsible. Although Grose cites the Southern Regional Report written after the incident, questioning reports from law enforcement that shots from the student protestors instigated the shootings, the author goes no further in explaining how this discrepancy between official government reports and others could be so different. Perhaps it is because Grose accepts the official explanation.

Just as curious is how, in the aftermath of the Orangeburg shootings, McNair was determined to prosecute Cleveland Sellers, the young black activist who was on the campus during the demonstrations and the shootings. Even state law enforcement officials admit that no one saw Sellers leading or participating in the violence. But the fact that he was there was sufficient evidence for McNair to go after him. This apparent vendetta by the state's chief executive remains a mystery that Grose does not explain. What made the Governor ignore FBI evidence as well as the reluctance of the First Judicial Circuit solicitor, Julian Wolfe, to prosecute Sellers? The reader is left to speculate because the author does not provide a plausible answer (pp. 234-236).

Perhaps if this study had used more extensively the available sources and not relied so heavily on the McNair Oral History Collection, Grose could have answered some of these questions. While the former governor's oral histories are valuable in themselves, better use of oral histories and recollections of McNair's advisors and his opponents could have been made to balance out the story and provide better analysis. Although the author does use Jack Bass and Jack Nelson's detailed study of the incident he might have made better use of it to locate other sources they used.[1] Grose's treatment of the Charleston hospital strike that followed a year later has similar problems. Again McNair seemed detached from the evolving labor unrest that was brewing around the medical college during the spring of 1969, even though he was kept informed of the growing upheaval. Although it appeared that the governor stepped in before any significant violence erupted, his continued reluctance to take a lead in the negotiations indicates flawed leadership. A more direct approach with the principal players on both sides could have been taken, but McNair waited until it was almost too late. Although he did step in and did help reach a resolution to the dispute, the reasons for his slow reaction remain largely unaddressed. And it is interesting that when the smoke cleared, McNair's leadership only partially resolved the dispute and left many in the African American community still frustrated. Was McNair unable to use his considerable negotiating skill to seek a more equitable settlement? If so the reader needs to know.

Although Grose should have analyzed these pivotal events better, the biography is still a useful overview of McNair's life and should lead to other studies about this leader of the Palmetto State. While we can see why this native of Hell Hole Swamp is important to the evolving story of the Palmetto State's political reformation in the late twentieth century, more needs to be done to learn why this moderate leader who prided himself on working with diverse groups in solving problems could not prevent the upheavals in 1968 and 1969 that shocked the state and the nation. Without further analysis, this reviewer was left with the distinct impression that no matter how much he tried to reform the state's political and educational fortunes during his tenure, his full legacy will remain tarnished by Orangeburg and Charleston.


[1]. Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, The Orangeburg Massacre (reprint, Mercer University Press, 2002), 90.

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Citation: Fritz Hamer. Review of Grose, Philip G., South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights. H-SC, H-Net Reviews. January, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12812

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