Blacks to Gain Senate Seats In South Carolina

Blacks to Gain Senate Seats In South Carolina

By Jack Bass

Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, pp. 3-4

After years of resistance, the all-white South Carolina senate voted thirty to eight in February to adopt a single-member district reapportionment plan that virtually insures election of blacks in 1984 for the first time in almost a century. The senate-passed plan included seven black majority districts, four of them with fifty-nine percent or more black population.

“Never in our wildest dreams,” editorialized The State, South Carolina’s largest daily, “would we have imagined that the senate could handle such a sensitive issue that affects the political lives of each member with such dispatch.”

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Because of house amendments that increased the number of majority black districts from seven to nine and made several other changes, the final battle is still being fought. The issue seems headed for federal court, but it appears certain that blacks will serve for the first time since Bruce H. Williams of Georgetown and Thomas John Reynolds left the senate in 1888, two decades after a dozen black senators were elected at the beginning of Reconstruction. Blacks returned to the South Carolina house in 1970, where their number has now grown from three to twenty as a result of single-member districts.

In part, the senate action represented a response to last year’s bruising fight over congressional reapportionment. That ended with the federal courts permitting the splitting of county boundaries. The implications were clear for the senate. Also, last year’s lengthy wrangle left South Carolinians disgruntled over the legislature’s failure to put its houses in order.

In a larger sense, the senate consensus reflected a recognition of black political power as a fact of life in South Carolina, the result of years of effort in registering black voters in hundreds of communities. The NAACP and house black caucus leaders negotiated with and kept pressure on the senate for single member districts. They then pushed the house to go further in increasing the number of black majority districts.

Whatever plan finally emerges, the most visible all-white bastion of power in South Carolina will fall. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court frustrated black hopes when it ruled in Morris v. Gressette that the Justice Department’s failure to object to a discriminatory plan was not a proper matter for the courts to resolve. Several years later, Justice’s Civil Rights Division withdrew its support of an NAACP-backed suit after the Supreme Court ruled in Bolden v. City of Mobile that discriminatory “intent” must be proved.

In relenting before new realities, the senate’s action can be paired with South Carolina’s adoption of a higher education desegregation plan that was approved in record time by the federal government. A key player in both senate reapportionment and the desegregation plan was Senator L. Marion Gressette, the eighty-one year old patriarch of the senate. Gressette, who once chaired the state’s official school segregation committee, represents a constituency that is forty-five percent black and that now votes. He has become more sensitive and more accommodating. “I hope I’ve had enough sense to know you’re subject to change, to changing times,” he says.

Last fall, battle lines appeared to promise an all-out fight in the senate, whose forty-six members represent sixteen districts. The multi-member districts all have numbered posts, which means a black candidate must run head-on against a white opponent in at-large elections. In 1980, black Democrat William Saunders won nomination to a senate seat in Charleston County, but lost to a Republican in a county-wide general election characterized by racial bloc voting.

In last fall’s preliminary skirmishing, the state NAACP insisted it would be satisfied with nothing less than single-member districts. “The organization is putting its reputation on the line,” said state NAACP President William Gibson, a Greenville dentist.

At first, Gressette had insisted that counties should not be divided. He told a reporter that black majority districts had been discussed since 1967, but “you can’t spread thirty-one percent (black population) over forty-six counties if you’re going to keep county lines intact.” In January of this year, a Gressette-chaired subcommittee’ reported out a reapportionment plan that included twenty-five districts, thirteen of them single-member, five with black majorities.

The State, whose establishment editorial voice expressed moderation on both the desegregation plan and senate reapportionment, responded with an editorial headlined, “Single-Member Plan for Senate Is Best.”

The editorial stated, “A fairly drawn single-member plan that does not dilute black voting strength is less likely to be contested in court and is more likely to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. Let’s do this one right the first time.”

Gressette didn’t have the votes in the full committee or in the senate to enact his subcommittee’s plan. Hospitalized for leg surgery, he missed the final vote but sent word that the senate should proceed without him after the plan left his home county, Calhoun, intact. Gressette’s decision not to be an obstructionist eased passage of the single-member reapportionment plan. In his absence, senate leadership fell to Thomas E. Smith of Florence, generally a progressive voice. Smith recognized that the federal court’s approval of splitting county lines in the congressional plan “made some people reasonable who hadn’t been reasonable.”

In December, popular senator Alex Sanders of Columbia removed a political roadblock when he announced that he would not seek reelection and expressed hope that this would make it easier to divide’ Richland County into four single-member districts that would insure election of a black senator. The move by Sanders, who since has become the leading candidate for chief judge on a new state appeals court, meant Richland could be split without pitting incumbents against each other.

In working out the final senate plan, Smith and others met informally with NAACP and house black caucus leaders, who had their own demographer. A compromise was reached which pits two incumbents against each other and places another in a fifty-nine percent black district. Passed in the senate, this plan went to the house where the black caucus prevailed in getting adopted a plan that would create nine, rather than seven, black population majority districts. But the house amendments radically changed the boundaries approved by the senate–boundaries that reflected delicate political compromise. Although black representation in the senate now seems assured, it appears that once again the federal courts may resolve South Carolina’s reapportionment dispute.

Jack Bass is director of American South Special Projects at the University of South Carolina and co-author, with Walter DeVries, of The Transformation of Southern Politics.