Growing up in Sumter, I knew of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, but I did not meet him until 1966 when he came to Washington after winning a special election for the Senate seat that was held by the late Sen. Olin D. Johnston. I was a third-year law student at Howard University and working for Congressman John Conyers on Capitol Hill.
The year prior to Hollings' arrival, President Lyndon Johnson had pushed through Congress the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To aid in the implementation of the new law, a group of foundations put together a pool of money and sent the funds to the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta for the purpose of assisting in the registration of persons of color in the 11 Southern states. An organization called the Voter Education Project was formed, and a fellow named Vernon E. Jordan was hired to run this new entity. His first task was to hire an individual in each of the states to coordinate voter registration drives to place African-Americans on the voting rolls.
Some of the black leaders in South Carolina met with Jordan and pointed him to me in Washington, D.C. Jordan came to D.C. and summoned me to his hotel for dinner, and in some colorful language that I will not use here told me that I needed to take my butt back to South Carolina and register my people to vote.
I had some reservations about returning to my home state. I had been gone for 10 years, and not much from a racial point of view had changed. Also, I had a wife who had fallen in love with Washington and the big-city way of life. I gave Jordan a tentative yes, subject to my discussing it with my wife and Sen. Hollings.
I met with Fritz Hollings, and he assured me that the state was changing. I shared with him that I vividly remember the day in 1957 when my senior class from Lincoln High School in Sumter visited the Statehouse and was not permitted to tour the building. Sen. Hollings assured me such a practice was over and behind us. He pointed to the fact that there were more than 50,000 black voters and 12 black elected officials serving in various posts.
He then challenged and encouraged me to take the job. He went so far as to wager a bet that I could not register 100,000 persons of color. Now, he had a selfish reason for this bet. He would be up for re-election in 1968 and needed every vote he could get. I won the bet. In an 18-month period leading into the general election of 1968 and a coordinated effort with NAACP and other civil rights groups, we were able to place more than 200,000 new persons of color on the voting rolls and elected more than 100 black elected officials.
As we closed our meeting, he told me that he was going to cast a "no" vote for Thurgood Marshall's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. I was momentarily stunned. A few weeks earlier Marshall had judged my Moot Court presentation at Howard University School of Law. He said he had polled the Senate, and Marshall had enough votes to be confirmed. He reminded me that a majority of white South Carolinians had not forgotten Marshall's role in Briggs v. Elliott and Brown v. The Board of Education.
He then said he had met with the black leadership in South Carolina and they were willing to give him a pass on the vote since Marshall was assured confirmation. I said to him, based on that, I would cut him some slack, also. He won his re-election bid and became a progressive voice for South Carolina.
I shall always remember Fritz Hollings for the way he handled Clemson and Harvey Gantt. He did not want South Carolina to be in the same defiant pose that Alabama and Mississippi had displayed.
I shall always remember how he fought to eradicate hunger in rural South Carolina in 1969. I shall always remember how he pulled South Carolina into the 21st century with the development of the Tech College System.
He was bright, bold and blunt.
James Felder is a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and president of the S.C. Voter Education Project.
More Articles to Read