State of Change?
Reviewed by Cecily McMillan
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 22-23
South Carolina in the Modern Age, by Walter Edgar (University of South Carolina Press, 1991, 171 pages).
The shaggy outlines of political coalitions and the ways in which they are created—around personality or favors, “friends and neighbors,” or to an increasingly hopeful degree in the South, around real issues—have long provided incumbents and those who aspire to public office with away to read the electorate. They also provide a way to read the changes that are occurring in a whole state.
At a time when at least one Southern state, South Carolina, is self-consciously attempting to loose itself from the grip of its past, from a legacy of defiant insularity, poverty, poor health, poor schools, racial inequality, and mistrust of its public officials, the transformation of a particular constituency this fall offered some clear indicators as to the voters’ identity and concerns and to the future of the state their activism will help define.
By itself, the birth of the new coalition that sent Billy Keyserling to the South Carolina House to represent a portion of Beaufort County is a small story involving about 10,000 voters. But it had the curious “before and after” quality which marks fundamental, if not seismic, shifts in a community.
When it is understood in the context of Walter Edgar’s fine new book, South Carolina in the Modern Age, a history of the state’s last one hundred years, it gains political symbolism, as if it were the very expression of—the culmination of—changes that have been occurring since 1891. As Professor Edgar tracks the steps the state has slowly taken to enter the mainstream of national life, so the Keyserling election shows how a group of voters came to feel they were a part of the mainstream, too.
The story began in Beaufort nearly twenty years ago when Billy Keyserling’s mother Harriet ran for and won a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. She was re-elected time after time, in large part as a result of her maturity, intelligence, and reputation as a good legislator, but also for her skills in securing for herself, a Democrat, the support of Republicans—many of them women, many of them her contemporaries, many new to the county. Combined with the traditional support of the county’s black voters for the Democratic candidate, and their unique loyalty to her husband Herbert, a well-known doctor who had cared for them, she was assured a margin of victory.
This spring, when she announced she would not seek another term, the question asked by many people—including her son Billy—was, “Could Harriet’s constituency be transferred intact?” The short, and not-surprising answer was no; constituencies are products of a unique alchemy between leaders and supporters.
However, the fact that Billy Keyserling did indeed win meant he had found a new, rich vein of loyalists. They were teachers, cooks, barmaids, landscapers, shopkeepers, young professionals with children in the public schools, college graduates who feared having to leave a place they loved because there were no good jobs. Many had felt themselves “not political,” on the fringes. Once given the sense that the issues they cared about had a political configuration—whether it was stopping a highway widening, improving the schools, or keeping their drinking water pure—and convinced that outcomes could be influenced by their efforts, they participated in droves.
The fact that this rather simple exercise in American politics should take on such meaning has everything to do with the modern history of South Carolina which Edgar, who teachers history at its University and directs its Institute for Southern Studies, so carefully and concisely summarizes in four chronologically-organized essays.
From the period starting twenty-five years before World War I through the legislative scandals that rocked the state in 1990, Edgar portrays a place which seemed to be in constant struggle with itself, pulled on the one hand, by a deep desire to glorify—and inhabit if possible—a mythic past and to preserve a rigid social and political order at the expense of progress; and, on the other by the desperate need to solve a host of seemingly intractable problems which, left unattended, had consigned South Carolina to nearly last place on every national “quality of
The basic conflict, left unresolved for most of the state’s modern period, provided the context in which every important decision was made. It gave rise to a political system in which power was closely held, issues rarely defined, local government barely alive, and scores of voters, black and white, disenfranchised and divided along race and class antagonisms. It is hardly surprising that demagogues flourished and that reformers were rather moderate. Or that when South Carolina was pressed to change, it found itself lacking the political and social infrastructure, and the means of consensus, by which to achieve it.
As Professor Edgar sees it the modern age has been a long haul. He brings the point home in each of his essays by describing, in a dozen or so sub-sections, activities that were taking place on all the state’s fronts: education, farming, the economy, and so on.
The fact that the news was never very good brings into sharp focus the difficulties faced by the state: some of which, it should be said, it brought on itself, and some, like the Depression, droughts, or changing price and demand for its goods, that were thrust upon it. Given the persistently bad odds, Edgar judiciously credits the bursts of progressivism designed to bring South Carolina out of the backwater.
The book opens with a chapter on the years 1891-1916, an account of the unsavory ways politicians like Coleman Blease and “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman consolidated their power. It wasn’t hard to do in a state that was poor and debt-ridden, its residents ill-educated (45 percent of the state was totally illiterate), unhealthy, and given to violent expressions of their discontent. The second chapter, 1916-1941, describes an already-hapless population faced with more difficulties: the Depression, the scourge of the boll-weevil, losses in the textile industry.
Taken together, these essays provide ample evidence as to why South Carolina was in no position to move forward. Political domination was complete. By 1916, Edgar writes: “Blacks had been disenfranchised and working-class whites effectively neutralized at the local level. The resulting political power structure would remain in firm control of South Carolina for another fifty years.” Economic paralysis was only marginally relieved by the New Deal’s “prime-the-pump” aid. In what might be called its “psychological” realm, the state was avidly romanticizing its antebellum past for tourists, and, no doubt, hoping to escape there itself.
World War II came and with it sweeping social changes that would influence not only South Carolina but the nation. This period, 1941-1966, witnessed the greatest shift in attitude and direction the state was ever to know.
The transformation was not without conflict-most especially on matters of racial integration which Edgar covers in excellent detail-but there developed for the first time a consensus among business and political leaders that what the rest of the country thought of South Carolina was important. Indeed, if it were successfully to attract the industries it coveted, major changes in image, and in reality, were crucial.
Thus began a campaign of self-improvement which has lasted to this day. It was, and is, fueled by considerations of economic development, but it has spun off commitments in every area including reform of state government, improved health-care, tax increases to fund education. The very fact that there are tangible issues to consider has created a place in the political system for citizen participation, as evidenced by the emerging coalition in Beaufort County. As Edgar wryly points out: “The worst fears of white Carolinians a century ago have come to pass: two-party politics, a strong Republican party, and black voters.”
Continuing his theme of “making headway” in the final essay, the years from 1966-1991, Edgar thoughtfully balances the consequences of change with the ability of South Carolinians to reconcile themselves to it. The amazing thing, he points out, is that the state came so far in such a short period of time.
Speed has its price, though, and he reports several significant instances of backsliding: one was the tremendous resistance encountered in 1970 by then-Governor Robert E. McNair as he complied with a Federal order to desegregate two school districts and maintain order, by force if necessary, while doing so.
More recently, the population had had to adjust itself to reports of widespread malfeasance on the part of more than two dozen public officials. Whether the process of governance can be reformed to the degree that seems necessary to prevent further abuses of power is the task that a newly-strengthened state, and a more aware citizenry, will have to face.
Whatever the outcome, and whatever challenges the future brings, Edgar’s book points up that, finally, South Carolina has entered the mainstream and intends to stay there. The portrait he draws of a state at long last being able to look itself in the eye, as it were, instead of having its gaze permanently fixed on its past, is a hopeful one. That change is coming to the state at all and the sort of change that residents will welcome and support, that they will view as an historic opportunity instead of a trade-off for what they value, represents a basic shift in the perception that South Carolinians and their leaders have of themselves. Overcoming many obstacles to achieve it has indeed been the history of the state in the modern age.
Cecily McMillan, writer and political activist, divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Frogmore, South Carolina.