Over the years I have written a number of times about how the leaders of this state have sought to rewrite our history, giving it a certain heroic flavor and white tincture. Most of the revisionism seems to do with matters of race and the Civil War.
But there is another major chapter of South Carolina history that has been carefully buried and deliberately forgotten in popular history and memory, a chapter that is just now being rediscovered in light of President Barack Obama’s $787 billion federal economic stimulus package.
During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal funneled millions of dollars into South Carolina at a time when one quarter of the state’s population was eligible for relief. The New Deal transformed South Carolina and the South, bringing them out of 70 years of economic stagnation, preparing them to play a major role in the Allied victory in World War II and the post-war American economy.
The Agriculture Adjustment Administration helped stabilize crop prices with agricultural allotments. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electric power to thousands of remote farms across the state. The National Industrial Recovery Act laid the foundation for most of the modern safety nets protecting worker rights and safety, including child labor laws, the 40-hour week, and the National Labor Relations Board.
Most importantly, the NIRA created the Public Works Administration, putting thousands of South Carolinians to work on public projects which transformed the state. A new book, American-Made: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor, chronicles the legacy of the WPA.
Local attorney and amateur historian William Hamilton III has done his own chronicling of the New Deal in this state. “Federal economic stimulus programs transformed life in the South Carolina Lowcountry between 1934 and 1942…,” Hamilton wrote recently. “In missing historic plaques and revisionist local histories, the facts of those remarkable years have been tossed down an Orwellian ‘memory hole.'”
Hamilton draws on the scrapbooks of Edmund P. Grice, the local man who headed the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for Charleston County. Those notebooks are on microfilm in the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library.
There were no paved roads in the area outside downtown Charleston, Hamilton writes. New Deal programs paved Meeting Street out to Rivers Avenue and paved Windermere Avenue. The Charleston airport was constructed with paved runways, a terminal, and a control tower. The derelict Charleston Navy Yard was retooled, and thousands of local people went to work there. Wells were drilled, offering clean water for many for the first time. Federal money built Summerall Chapel and several barracks at the Citadel; cadets also received federal stipends for their work, in order to be able to remain in school. Other programs built new facilities at the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper Hospital and Alhambra Hall in Mt. Pleasant.
Between 1933 and 1936, the state sent only $10 million to Washington in taxes, but received $240 million in programs and services from the national government, historian Walter Edgar has written in his history of South Carolina. He cites one program, the Economic Recovery Act, saying it “literally saved thousands of Carolinians from starvation.”
FDR was loved by the vast majority of South Carolinians, who supported him overwhelmingly in four presidential elections. But Roosevelt’s New Deal was savagely denounced by the old southern oligarchs as socialistic and communistic, because it disrupted the feudal economy, dominated by huge landowners and fueled by sharecropper labor. Among those denouncing it were The Evening Post and The News and Courier, the two Charleston newspapers owned by the Manigault family. Today those papers have been combined into The Post and Courier, which is still owned by the Manigault family, and it is denouncing Obama’s stimulus package, just as its predecessors did the New Deal. It is joined by a chorus of state Republican leaders, including Sens. Jim DeMint, Lindsey Graham, and Gov. Mark Sanford. Sanford is one of five southern GOP governors threatening to spurn some or all of the stimulus package money.
Today, President Obama seeks to use federal debt to give people jobs and save their health care and their homes. Yet, he is denounced by the same forces of greed and fear which tried to derail the New Deal 75 years ago. As Taylor writes, “Red-baiting congressmen called (the WPA) a hotbed of Communists. Its very initials became a taunt; WPA, said its critics, stood for ‘We Piddled Around.'”
Yet the New Deal and World War II (another giant federal spending program) succeeded in pulling the American economy out of the Great Depression and sending it on to decades of prosperity. There is no reason to think that the Obama stimulus package cannot do the same today — if Republicans will only shut up and get out of the way.
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