The NAACP in South Carolina

The first NAACP chapters in South Carolina were organized in Columbia and Charleston in 1917 with seventy-five members. One of the founding members in Charleston was a famous artist, Edwin Harleston. Septima Poinsette Clark was one of the activists early in the life of the Charleston chapter. This was nearly a decade after W.E.B. DuBois had founded the national organization in New York in 1909. By late 1917 just over 1,400 people subscribed to the NAACP's national journal, The Crisis. Two years later the state membership was just over 1,100, though about eighty percent of the membership was in Charleston. Their greatest single success in this early formative period was in 1920 when the Charleston group used a petition signed by three-fourths of the blacks in the city to persuade white leaders to hire black teachers to teach in black public schools. Previously only white teachers were hired. Beyond this, they did not accomplish very much in the way of tangible gains until the WWII period. But they did lay the foundation for the gains that came later. Other local branches included units in Georgetown, Sumter, Slorence, Cheraw, Rock Hill, Greenville, and Aiken.

The NAACP began to have a more tangible impact in the state when local chapters came together and formed a state-wide conference in 1939. The first president was Reverend A.W. Wright. Other early leaders included Septima Poinsette Clark, Modjeska Monteith Simpkins, Ossie McKaine, and the Reverend James Hinton, who led the group through many important civil rights battles. In an interview in 1976, Rev. I. DeQuincy Newman traced the leadership of the state organization up till that time, when it was composed of thirty-two youth chapters and eighty-two adult chapters.

One of the most important legal battles fought by the South Carolina conference of the NAACP concerned the desegregation of schools. This was the case of Briggs v. Elliot, which was grouped together with the Brown v Board of Education case by the Supreme Court in 1954. Many local people played important roles in this case, and many lost their jobs or were even driven from the state with death threats. That effort was preceeded by many other efforts to improve the educational opportunities for African-Americans in the state. In the middle 1940s Ossie McKaine, after reorganizing the Sumter branch, persuaded the state NAACP Conference to make equal pay for teachers their number one priority. With the money the group raised for legal challenges, teachers in Columbia and Charleston won equal salaries in 1944 and 1945.

The S.C. NAACP helped raise money for the Supreme Court case that originated in Texas that outlawed the "white primary." After this victory white political leaders did not relent and allow blacks to vote in the state primary. Rather, they rescinded all primary laws and turned the Democratic Party into a kind of private club that could then refuse membership to blacks. The state NAACP responded with a test case, which began with George Elmore trying to vote in the 1946 primary. In July of 1947, Federal Judge Waties Waring, who was a member of a prominent Charleston family, ruled that the state must allow all people of all races to vote in its primaries. This battle did not win the war against political inequality because of discriminatory practices in the voting resistration process, but it was an important victory along the way. Enough blacks did overcome the registration process so that white politicians began to pay them a little attention. For example, African-American voters in the 1950 Democratic primary were the key in helping Senator Olin Johnston survive a challenge from Governor Strom Thurmond.

One of the more important leaders of the S.C. NAACP during the civil rights period of the 1950s and 60s was the Reverend Isaiah DeQuincey Newman. Newman personified the polite non-confrontational approach that the organization took in bringing about change in the state. He believed in negotiation rather than confrontation. Yet, at the same time he was willing to challenge segregationist laws, leading many demonstrations across the state, such as a "wade-in" at Myrtle Beach State Park. The organization was up against the entire political structure of the state. The 1956 legislative session was described as the "segregationist session' by The State newspaper. It made membership in the NAACP grounds for firing any state employee. It closed state parks rather than desegregate them and made plans to close schools rather than desegregate. Governor Timmerman fired college professors who advocated integration. The NAACP and other civil rights groups, such as CORE, persisted. Sit-ins and demonstrations and boycotts continued. The leadership of Newman and other civil rights leaders led to relatively peaceful change in South Carolina. The Orangeburg Massacre, in which three young African-Americans were shot and killed by white law enforcement officials, was the worst violence to hit the state in a period when much more violence was taking place elsewhere. Matthew Perry, the NAACP's legal counsel, won cases that integrated the state's colleges and forced the state to move to single member legislative districts, which made possible the election of African-Americans to the legislature.

The next generation of leadership included Nelson B. Rivers III, who was among a group of younger and more militant civil rights activists growing up in the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s. He had graduated from high school in Charleston in the 1970s and then left the state to go to college. In his college years he became involved with more militant groups and had little respect for more moderate organizations like the NAACP. But when some of his Black Panther friends were jailed, he noticed that it was NAACP lawyers who got them released. His views changed. Upon returning to South Carolina, he helped revive the North Charleston Chapter of the NAACP in 1984, and then was hired as executive secreatary of the NAACP in November of that year. The title was changed to executive director in 1989, and he continued in this position until March of 1994, when he moved on to head the southern regional office of the organization in Atlanta. In the summer of 1993 he led a march of Williamsburg County blacks through mostly white Hemingway to protest the city's attempt to secede from the county.

Dr.William Gibson, a Greenville dentist, provided the South Carolina NAACP with long term leadership, serving as president from 1977 until he chose not to run for re-election in 1997. His last re-election as president of the state conference took place in October 1995 for the two year term. But that re-election was not without controversy. Gibson had served as chair of the national organization for a decade until he was ousted in a bitter election in February 1995 by the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams. The controversey involved Gibson's handling of finances. An audit of the national organization raised questions about $111,000 in expenditures approved by Gibson. An audit of the South Carolina Conference had not yet been completed in October 1997 when the next election took place.

In early 1997 the executive director position was assumed by Brenda Reddix-Smalls, who had practiced law in South Carolina for two decades and whose father was Louisiana NAACP president in the 1950s. Her planned emphasis was to work on increasing membership in the eighty-eight chapters throughout the state. Membership was reported in newspaper stories to have been falling.

In October 1997 the state conference had its annual meeting in Aiken and held an election for the post of president. Gibson, after delivering a rousing speech the first night of the meeting, did not place his name up for re-election. However, Rev. H.H. Singleton, a close supporter of Gibson, was nominated from the floor. He was opposed by James Gallman, a retired Aiken teacher/coach/principal and Director of Aiken-Barnwell Head Start, who was supported by the reform forces that had failed to oust Gibson in 1995. Gallman won election with 129 votes against Singleton's 77. He was to take over as president in January 1998.

James Gallman, being interviewed at the October 1997 state NAACP meeting in Aiken, S.C., at which he was elected president of the state conference. Picture by Jared Karr, with permission of the USCA Pacer Times.

Controversy aside, the national NAACP did accomplish goals that helped African-Americans under Gibson's tenure. For example, in 1993 the Spartanburg based Denny's restaurant chain signed an agreement with the NAACP that was worth an estimated billion dollars in jobs to minorities.

Perhaps the most important question is one of the effectiveness of the NAACP in South Carolina politics. The organization was probably most effective in the 1960s and 70s when it was a major driving force behind the legal and human challenge to laws of segregation and unequal treatment. Once those laws had been removed from the books the battle turned to issues less amenable to demonstrations that could arouse public sympathy. Court challenges and U.S. Justice Department intervention under the Voting Rights Act helped move the state to single member districts that improved African-American representation in government. Periodically the group has mounted effective demonstrations against the odd private club or restaurant that discriminated, or even against a Klan souvenir shop. These vestiges of the past were notable for their rarity and the uniform condemnation they received from the political establishment once the NAACP raised an outcry. Relics of the past, with the major exception of the Confederate battle flag, are seen by nearly all white elites as impediments to economic development. White elites are divided over the flying of the flag. However, even here some progress has been made. The issue was on the political agenda in 1997 whereas before it was not even open to debate among white political leaders. Other issues, like health care, welfare, jobs, education, and crime have been more difficult. Thanks to the NAACP and other groups, African-American voices are now heard in the halls of the state house and in city and county councils and school boards all over the state. But those voices are still a minority in political bodies. White Republicans have exploited white resentment about civil rights to build majorities that need not compromise with African-American interests because they do not need African-American votes to win elections (see representation). When surveyed about which interest groups were most powerful in the early 1980s, only 1% of the legislators mentioned civil rights groups like the NAACP. Another legislator survey in the mid 1990s found no change: the NAACP is not among the interest groups perceived to be powerful by legislators, even though African-Americans comprise nearly a third of the state's population. So while the NAACP is not a major player in South Carolina politics, it remains a watchdog at the state level and in the many communities in which chapters exist. In some ways it may be a victim of its own success. Even though life chances for African-Americans are far from equal, the group has been successful in opening the doors of opportunity wide enough so that people can find find success in individual ways. That path was not possible for any but the most remarkable people a few decades ago.

With new leadership coming to power in 1998, the question is whether the organization can be revitalized. Questions over the organization's finances must be resolved and membership decline must be stopped. Beyond opposing the Confederate battle flag and opposing the erosion of majority African-American legislative districts, the group may need to define more positive goals that capture the imagination of a new generation of African-Americans in the state who have no personal memory of the civil rights battles of decades ago.


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last updated 8/16/99
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