The Straight Line of Racist Politics from 19th Century South Carolina to Donald Trump
By Phil Noble
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” — Lee Atwater, S.C. political consultant in 1991 interview
This may be the best summary of the recent evolution of racial politics in South Carolina and America as articulated by native son Lee Atwater – the most skillful practitioner of the political dark arts of race and division in the last 40 years.
If we advance the calendar and rhetoric a bit, we get to law and order…the silent majority… Willie Horton…Mexicans and immigrants…Muslims…and (via two of Lee Atwater’s protégées) Donald Trump.
There is really nothing new here. No one should be surprised by Trump’s tactics or even his rhetoric as they are the same basic strategies, divisive tactics and inflammatory language that have been the hallmark of racial politics for generations.
Although other states have historically had their share of crude racist politicians (and some subtle ones today), probably more than any state South Carolina has had a succession of racist politicians who learned from each other and rose to national prominence by mastering the politics of race. Interestingly, they all had their political roots in or near Edgefield County (more on Edgefield later).
Let’s begin with a little history. It’s fair to say that issues of race have been the central tenant of South Carolina politics since before South Carolina was even a state. Space does not allow a full recounting of this history but let’s just say our early racial politics culminated in the Civil War and Reconstruction – which ushered in a period of open virulent racism as personified by Pitchfork Ben Tillman.
Tillman, who often boasted that he had personally killed a number of blacks, was elected governor in 1890 and was a US Senator from 1895 until his death in 1918. Tillman’s family roots went deep into the dark soil of Edgefield County – a county with a rich and colorful history that brags to being the home of ten South Carolina governors. And, Edgefield’s people are as colorful as their politicians are illustrious. According to David Robertson, Jimmy Byrnes biographer (more on Byrnes later), “Edgefield accurately boasted of itself as being ‘the damnedest, game cockingest, liquor drinkingest, nigger shootingest, sinfullest place in South Carolina.”
As a US Senator, Tillman responded to President Theodore Roosevelt inviting Booker T Washington to the White House by saying, “The actions of the President in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in South Carolina before they will learn their place.”
Tillman’s most famous political pupil was Jimmy Byrnes; he lived in Aiken, the next county over from Edgefield. Byrnes became a Congressman, US Senator, US Supreme Court Justice, ‘assistant President’ to Roosevelt in the war effort, Secretary of State and then governor of South Carolina.
Most historians agree that had if not been for Byrnes’ vulnerability on racial issues, he would have been chosen by Roosevelt as his vice president in 1944. Hence with Roosevelt’s death, Byrnes would have been elevated to the presidency, a position he had coveted for decades.
Though Byrne’s racial language was more subdued than Tillman’s and his attitudes were not as sharp, when he was Governor in 1950-54, he chose a policy of harsh resistance to desegregation rather than the more moderate policies of some other southern governors.
In his Inaugural Address he said, “Whatever is necessary to continue the separation of the races in the schools of South Carolina it is going to be done by the white people of the state. That is my ticket as a private citizen. It will be my ticket as governor.”
Next in line is Strom Thurmond. In a story he told all his life, as a young boy growing up in Edgefield, Thurmond’s father took him to a political rally to meet Tillman and shake his hand. As a young attorney, Thurmond knew Edgefield’s congressman, Jimmy Byrnes, and it was at the 1932 Democratic Convention where Byrnes first began to groom the 31-year-old Thurmond as one of his lieutenants.
Thurmond’s record of fanning and exploiting racial fears is unparalleled in South Carolina or national history. Less than two years after he was elected governor, in 1948 Thurmond ran for president on the States Rights or Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond continued to make racial issues the hallmark of his long career and in 1957, he conducted a solo filibuster of a civil rights bill by talking for 24 hours and 18 minutes, a record that still stands today. Like his hero Tillman, in 2013 Thurmond died while still in the Senate – at age 100.
One of Thurmond’s chief advisors was Harry Dent, a native of rural Calhoun County (two counties over Edgefield). Dent was a brilliant political strategist and operator and was considered the architect of the Republican ‘Southern Strategy.’ The essence of the Southern Strategy was to use race as a wedge issue to drive Southern Democrats into supporting Republican candidates – beginning with Richard Nixon in 1972.
Atwater said, “As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have been a central part of keeping the South.” Dent later went on to work in the White House for Nixon where his principle job was to see that the Southern Strategy became a permanent part of the modern Republican Party.
As a protégé of Dent and Thurmond for over 20 years, Atwater (who grew up in Aiken) learned and perfected the use of racial symbols and code words to win elections in the modern age of TV politics. The most famous example was the Willie Horton ad which used the ominous figure of a black man who had brutally murder a white woman to sink the 1988 presidential campaign of liberal Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and elect George Bush.
Atwater’s political consulting firm that helped elect Bush and dozens of Republican candidates was Black, Manafort, Stone and Atwater. In 1991, while Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater died of brain cancer though his political consulting firm continues to this day. Two of the principals, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, have been close extremely high profile advisors to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Thus, the line is complete.
The raw racist politics that began in rural, hard scrabble Edgefield, S.C. in the Reconstruction Era have now found its fullest expression in the media savvy, hate fueled campaign of a New York billionaire in the age of Twitter.
Times have changed, geography has changed, language has changed, but the same vile racism and bigotry continues.