The year we saved the Voting Rights Act
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
By 1980, both the nation and the Senate had changed radically. Republicans had gained control of the Senate in the Reagan landslide election that November, and Thurmond was set to take up the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over the Voting Rights Act. More importantly, the act’s critical Section 5 “pre-clearance” provisions were set to expire in 1982.
These provisions were the heart of the Voting Rights Act, and they required states covered by the law — mostly those in the Deep South — to ask for U.S. Justice Department approval before changing election laws. With the Senate in Republican hands and a conservative Republican President Reagan presumably waiting with a veto pen in hand, Thurmond’s road to victory seemed clear and open.
A year and a half after Thurmond declared war on the Voting Rights Act, the Senate voted 85-8 to renew it and the Section 5 provisions, joining the House of Representatives. Thurmond was even one of the 85 aye votes in the Senate. After that, President Reagan signed it into law.
What forced Thurmond to change his position was partially the work of a small group of South Carolina black rights activists who took up the battle and created a statewide movement to save the Voting Rights Act. They were joined by thousands of black South Carolinians who had only recently acquired full voting rights. Together they defeated Thurmond in his own state.
On numerous occasions Strom Thurmond publicly declared his reasons for wanting to remove Section 5 from the Voting Rights Act, and no declaration was more plainly made than the one he delivered during a debate with then-S.C. NAACP Field Director Isaac Williams at a public hearing in Columbia in early 1982.
After Williams expressed his support for the extension of the Voting Rights Act, The State newspaper quoted Thurmond as snapping back, saying, “I’m sick and tired of having the Southern states singled out and say we don’t treat blacks right when we do treat them right.”
He added that he was “interested in the reputation of this state” and that it was “unfair” that states under the preclearance provision had no chance under the current law to prove they had mended their discriminatory ways. Thurmond told Williams that if he knew of anyone who had been denied the right to vote in South Carolina in the past 10 years “then you give me his name and I’ll have the Justice Department investigate it.”
Thurmond was a smart man, and so he was probably being a little disingenuous in this argument. After all, in the early 1980s African Americans were not being denied the right to go to the polls in South Carolina. However, many white politicians in the South had manipulated voting districts and election laws in such a manner as to limit the chances of a black candidate winning an election.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the S.C. Senate. In 1980, that legislative body remained an all-white enclave, largely because of a complicated and convoluted districting plan preventing majority-black districts. But it was also present in jurisdictions like Thurmond’s home county of Edgefield, where no African Americans held elective office despite an almost 50-50 split between black and white residents.
In the fall of 1980 I was working as the community education specialist for Palmetto Legal Services in the Midlands. I was also running a black movement news service called Maroon Information Services. As soon as I read about Thurmond’s intent to kill the Voting Rights Act, I was on the phone with friends and associates I had been working with in the black freedom movement.
A week after Thurmond’s declaration, we brought together four organizations — Maroon Information Services, the S.C. Committee Against Hunger, Operation Help (out of the Florence and Pee Dee regions), and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a black labor organization — to form the S.C. Black Voting Rights Campaign, a group whose purpose was to fight Thurmond and save the Voting Rights Act.
We announced our intentions in a leaflet called “Not One Step Backward” in which we announced our intention to “resist the attacks against black human rights with all of our power.” The leaflet concluded with a direct warning to Thurmond. “Mind, Strom,” the statement said. “We have not forgotten how to struggle.”
We were not the only black group in or around the state making such statements. NAACP Conference of Branches State President Dr. William Gibson denounced Thurmond’s move, and both the Sumter County Public Awareness Association and the Sumter Black Business Association openly opposed Thurmond’s effort.
Late in November, we organized a protest demonstration against Thurmond at the Strom Thurmond Federal Building in Columbia, taping up a “Save the Voting Rights Act” banner and shouting out freedom songs and chants.
The Columbia Record reported that “the situation [at the demonstration] was tense for a short time when federal security officers attempted to dispel the demonstrators … The demonstrators refused to stop the protest, and the security officers made no further effort to break up the demonstration.”
The Record reported that about 15 people demonstrated for about an hour on that chilly, windy day at the Columbia federal building. It’s probably an accurate number. If we’d pulled that low a number later in the campaign, we would have considered it a defeat. But as the first protest against Thurmond, it more than served its purpose as a return shot in a long war. More protests followed.
But not by the Black Voting Rights Campaign, at least not right away. We wanted something that would not only allow for a wider participation by black South Carolinians in the struggle, but would also demonstrate wider black support for the act than a demonstration.
And so on January 15, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, we launched a petition drive for African Americans to express their desire to save the Voting Rights Act.
We kept the petitions as simple as possible, asking people to sign their names and list their hometowns. We set a preliminary goal of 10,000 signatures. On the kickoff day we collected more than 1,000 names towards that goal. By the time the petition campaign ended in late September, we had reached close to 18,000 names representing black South Carolinians.
Meanwhile, Thurmond was already backtracking, declaring that he didn’t want to eliminate Section 5, but, in fairness, he wanted to extend it to the entire nation. Thurmond’s hope, clearly, was that either national election law oversight by the Justice Department would be so unworkable to be ineffective or that the mere proposal of it might cause Congress to eliminate such oversight of the already-covered states.
Thurmond’s strategy did not work largely because it got overwhelmed by fierce black opposition to any weakening of the Voting Rights Act.
Petition campaigns are often quick-and-dirty affairs, with signature-gatherers making just enough of a persuasive argument to get a name on the dotted line before moving on.
Our goal in the Voting Rights petition campaign was not to persuade, but to inform. Many local groups and leaders participated in the workshops and petition-gathering activities, including officials with several local branches of the NAACP, the state’s largest and most representative civil rights organization.
Throughout 1981, Voting Rights petition campaign workshops were held in such cities as Charleston, Vance, Great Falls, Rock Hill, Summerville, Orangeburg, Anderson, Florence, Edgefield, Aiken, Sumter, Newberry, Hollywood, and Columbia.
Workshop leaders talked about the golden age of black voting rights and political representation during the Reconstruction years and the bloody, terrorist repression that followed, when black elected officials were either murdered or intimidated out of public office while African-American voters were pushed off the voting rolls by the armed white militias of the 1870s and 1880s.
One of the major white militia leaders, we explained, was South Carolina governor and eventual U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman, a.k.a Pitchfork Ben. It was Tillman who boasted at the 1895 state Constitutional Convention that white South Carolinians took control of the state back from African Americans and white carpetbaggers “by fraud and violence.”
We explained that the acknowledged center of late 19th century anti-black political terrorism in South Carolina was Edgefield, Tillman’s home county. You could hear the murmurs in the crowd. This was where Strom Thurmond was from. Then we turned on the light switch.
One of the men who helped draw up and carry out this campaign of black repression, we explained, was one of Ben Tillman’s closest friends, as well as his personal attorney, J. William Thurmond. There would be a pause and almost dead silence around the room.
William Thurmond was Strom Thurmond’s father. And Strom Thurmond himself, we went on, had said that he learned his first lessons in politics at the feet of Ben Tillman.
There was a direct line, therefore, from the violent overthrow of black voting rights in Tillman’s era — including the assassinations of black elected officials, the burning of homes, and lynchings of African-Americans trying to go to the polls — all the way down to Thurmond’s attempt to gut the Voting Rights Act.
After that, there was little more that needed to be said except where to sign on the petitions and how to get them to their neighbors.
With the petition campaign up and running around the state, the members of the Black Voting Rights Campaign decided it was now time for us to take direct action against Mr. Thurmond. And so in the spring of 1981, we made a public declaration that every time Thurmond returned to South Carolina to speak, we would greet him with demonstrations.
Early in 1982, one of the largest such protests was held at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center as Thurmond was being inducted into the S.C. Hall of Fame. We held signs that read “No Honor for Strom” and “Don’t Cut Black Voting Rights,” and more than a hundred demonstrators picketed in front of the building as Thurmond was introduced inside by then-Vice President George W. Bush.
Bush later dismissed the protests as unimportant, telling a reporter for The State newspaper that “I don’t get all uptight about that. I would have felt a little lonely if they hadn’t been there.” But the protest had done its job, garnering headlines in several newspapers around the state and highlighting our continuing fight to save the Voting Rights Act.
The demonstration I remember the most, however, was the one that was aborted before it even got started, and the only protest in which we actually confronted Thurmond himself.
People in Edgefield had told us that the one event the senator could be counted on to attend every year was the graduation ceremony at the majority-black Strom Thurmond High School in his home town of Edgefield. There Thurmond himself handed out diplomas to the graduates.
Along with some folks from the county, we brought a small group of demonstrators out to graduation and set up a picket line on the sidewalk in front of the school. Local law enforcement officials — citing the fact that we had no permit for the picketing — quickly broke the demonstration up.
And so we put our picket signs in the trunks of our cars and went out to the football bleachers for the ceremonies. Thurmond was seated with school dignitaries in a platform just at the edge of the football field, only a few feet from where some of us were seated.
When the ceremonies started and Thurmond began handing out diplomas to the mostly black graduates — in the same manner as an old plantation master might pass out shoes and old clothing once a year to their black field hands and house servants — we started booing and shouting “racist” and “hypocrite” from the bleachers.
It was an unplanned outburst and probably came from us being suddenly so close to our great foe after so many months of stalking him.
An article in The State newspaper afterwards mentioned that “extra law enforcement officers were on hand … because of the demonstration,” including agents from the State Law Enforcement Division. The paper also noted that “the demonstrators were ushered off school property” after the heckling began and reported that “Thurmond ignored the hecklers.”
However, we were there and we saw that Thurmond was at first startled and then angered as he paused, mid-ceremony, at the sound of our booing.
That anger was confirmed later that night when we got back home. A television news report showed a glowering Thurmond slamming his car door on a reporter who had asked the senator what he thought about the heckling. The car door almost caught the out-held microphone in the process.
Clearly, we were getting to Strom.
A month after the graduation ceremony, national black leader and South Carolina native son Jesse Jackson returned to Edgefield with more than a thousand followers to march from the school to the county courthouse where he had arranged for deputy registers to sign up unregistered voters.
Jackson was quoted in The State newspaper as saying, “We didn’t come [to Edgefield] as Pitchfork Ben but as citizens asking to share in our government. We don’t want to dominate. We want to participate.” A week later, Jackson held a Voting Rights rally at Greater St. Luke A.M.E. Church in Charleston, telling the crowd of more than 2,000 that “the right to vote is the very essence of citizenship, and therefore is non-negotiable,” according to a Chronicle report.
By September 1981, we felt we had enough signatures on petitions to present them to the state’s Congressional representatives. We notified local media outlets that we were going to deliver separate copies of the petitions simultaneously to the district offices of each of the six South Carolina members of Congress as well as to Thurmond’s and Hollings’ regional offices.
The morning after what we called Presentation Day, news of the petitions were being reported on in every corner of the state. A few days later, we took a small contingent to Washington D.C. to present a copy of the petition packet to the Congressional Black Caucus during a Voting Rights Act support rally on the Capitol steps.
I was later told that Congressman Harold Washington of Chicago, who was heading up the Voting Rights fight for the Black Caucus, kept a copy of one of the petition sheets in his briefcase.
During House and Senate negotiations over the final version of the bill, anytime Thurmond claimed that black South Carolinians were no longer being prevented from voting, Washington would pull out the petition and reply that “your black citizens seem to think otherwise, senator.” Or at least that’s how the story goes.
Despite the occasional displays of anger, the Save the Voting Rights Act campaign did not appear to have any effect upon Thurmond himself. When Jesse Jackson and several black leaders held a 90-minute meeting with Thurmond in Washington a few days after Jackson’s Edgefield march, for example, The News & Courier reported that while the meeting was “amicable … Thurmond was not swayed by [the leaders’] arguments.” But the campaign was having its effect on other South Carolina officeholders.
In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina’s junior senator Ernest Hollings urged his fellow senators to support the renewal of the Voting Rights Act as it stood, saying that it was needed because of continued anti-black voting irregularities in South Carolina, including some in Thurmond’s home county of Edgefield in 1980.
Two months later, Gov. Richard Riley issued a statement saying that while he supported in principle some of Thurmond’s proposed amendments to the law, Riley concluded that “as a political realist, I recognize that these amendments to the act are unlikely to occur, and therefore, I would emphasize that in that event, I favor extending the [Voting Rights] Act as is.”
The position of Hollings and Riley in support of extending the Voting Rights Act without weakening amendments was probably expected by Thurmond. Both of the junior U.S. senator and the governor were Democrats, after all, a party that was increasingly dependent upon black votes both nationally and in the South.
However, it was the position of Ronald Reagan, the Republican who Thurmond had helped put into the Oval Office, that must have felt to the senator like a knife in the back. Reagan supported renewing the Voting Rights Act as is with no amendments.
Even worse, Thurmond’s beloved home county of Edgefield was being presented as an example of why the Voting Rights Act needed to remain the way it was. In a September 1981 editorial, The Greenville News reported that “increasingly, the national news focus on the [Voting Rights Act] issue is on Sen. Thurmond, and on his native Edgefield County as an example of why extensions of the act is needed.”
The editorial went on to explain that while the population of Edgefield County was almost equally divided between whites and blacks “to this day there are no non-whites in elective county office. Blacks have repeatedly won county district primaries only to be overwhelmed by a majority white turnout in the at-large elections.”
Meanwhile, the largest and most sustained protest demonstration in South Carolina to support the Voting Rights Act was still ahead.
In April 1982, Jackson went to Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) President Rev. Joseph Lowery’s Atlanta church. There Jackson announced that his organization, Operation PUSH, and SCLC were planning a months-long “pilgrimage” through five Southern states in support of the act’s full renewal.
The Voting Rights Pilgrimage began with a march in Alabama and made its way to South Carolina. The S.C. Black Voting Rights Campaign was chosen to co-sponsor the Palmetto state portion of the march.
I remember the two-and-a-half weeks that the pilgrimage passed through South Carolina only as a blur, walking the highways and streets along with several hundred others in the hot spring sun, chanting, shouting slogans, and waving placards at passing cars and gathered citizens along the way.
We entered the state at Edgefield on the first of May and left out Marlboro County 17 days later, stopping for evening rallies in 13 towns and cities, including Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia, and Florence.
The pilgrimage marked the end of major action in South Carolina to save the Voting Rights Act, but that was only because victory was in sight. Thurmond himself had all but admitted defeat a month later when, after voting to extend the Act intact,
The State newspaper reported that Thurmond had “said his decision to support the bill was based partly on the incorrect perception that a vote against it was a vote against people protected under the Voting Rights Act.” We’d won the argument.
The State reported that Thurmond was promising “to continue his efforts to improve parts of the measures he believes are unfair to states covered by the law.” In late June, President Reagan signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act with the Justice Department pre-clearance provisions intact, an extension that exists to this day.
Two years later, we used pressure from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to open up the S.C. Senate to its first full contingent of black senators since Ben Tillman and his “Red Shirt” terrorists had run them out a hundred years before. But that’s another story.
About the Author
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a former full-time black freedom worker and an award-winning journalist, political columnist, historical writer, and novelist.
He had been serving for a decade in South Carolina’s African-American freedom movement when U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond made his famous 1980 pledge to kill the Voting Rights Act. Once Thurmond was defeated and the Voting Rights Act was passed, Allen-Taylor became a lobbyist and an activist in the successful fight to open up the S.C. State Senate to African-American members for the first time since Reconstruction.
Allen-Taylor’s first book, Sugaree Rising, is a historical novel set in the South Carolina Lowcountry during the years of the Great Depression. The story is loosely based on black community resistance to the forced migration of more than 900 families caused by the building of the Pinopolis Dam at Moncks Corner and the creation of the Santee Cooper lakes.
Courtesy J. Douglas Allen-Taylor and the Charleston City Paper.