They say you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but sometimes when you’re recounting the life of a particularly nasty character, their words and deeds do far more damage than anything a columnist could say. In many cases, the very words and deeds that the deceased’s supporters find so offensive today are the very same words and deeds they praised before. 

Which brings us to John Graham Altman III. The former state legislator and Charleston School Board member passed away yesterday. It was not a shock. Altman had been admitted to a hospital last week and, at the time, it didn’t sound promising. Our thoughts and prayers, of course, go out to Altman’s family, who surely saw a different side of the man than the one he often presented in public. We hope that in private Altman was a kinder, more tolerant man than he was as a state representative and school board member. 

Here are a few of Altman’s dubious highlights from the City Paper archives:

May 3, 2006:

“When Adolf Hitler, the evil Hitler, was about to invade England, Churchill rallied the people. We don’t have a Churchill to rally Americans to stop these illegal aliens. And I want to do my share.”
—State Rep. John Graham Altman III (R-Chas.) last week on Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto, referring to an unsuccessful state bill he authored that would have blocked illegal immigrants from cashing winning state lottery tickets in South Carolina.

March 22, 2006:

Arthur Ravenel will ultimately be remembered for two things: the magnificent new bridge, which spans the Cooper River and bears his name; and his 2000 remark referring to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as the National Association of Retarded People. He never apologized for that smear and, more recently, he clashed again with the NAACP when that organization asked him to clarify his position regarding Goodloe-Johnson. Ravenel declined, calling the venerable civil rights organization “irrelevant.”

But the really troubling specter on the school board horizon is John Graham Altman. Throughout his 30 years in public life, Altman has been an unrepentant racist and homophobe, a private hypocrite of breathtaking arrogance. I have written about him here numerous times, and as long he continues to make himself a public figure, I will continue to cover him with ink.

In 20 contentious years on the Charleston County School Board, from 1976 to 1996, Altman was a constant source of friction, once saying of his fellow board members, “It’s very difficult to deal with a governing body that is about equal to the first seven or eight people who respond to a Kmart blue light special on pillowcases.”

Former fellow Boardmember Robert New said of Altman, “He’s a demagogue. He truly is and that’s sad because he’s so bright. John was the person who should have been something great in this world.”

After his election to the General Assembly in 1996, Altman continued to get into ugly disputes with black lawmakers, make flippant remarks about battered women, and carry on a personal crusade against the “homosexual agenda.” In his ceaseless campaign to preserve the sanctity of marriage from gays, he failed to point out that is twice divorced, and that he was once jailed for failure to pay child support. (Will Moredock, “The Good Fight”)

 March 2, 2005:

Best Reason to Give to ETV
“Militant Homosexual Agenda”

State Rep. John Graham Altman III (R-Charleston) recently struck up a protest of the “militant homosexual agenda” on that bastion of unwholesomeness, South Carolina Educational Television. The airing of We Are Your Neighbors, an independently produced documentary promoting “acceptance through understanding,” it would seem, is just another example of the decadence and debauchery that has overtaken this little Pineapple-Under-the-Sea we call home. SCETV President Maurice Bresnahan denied Rep. Altman’s suggestion of agenda-promotion, making the analogy that a station airing one program out of many is akin to a librarian filling the stacks with books of all different subjects and tones so that a wide range of information will be available to the public. But, hey, if it weren’t for all the time and attention that legislators like Altman turn toward crushing “social, leftist propaganda” such as acceptance through understanding, we might actually have to face our real problems in this state, such as rock-bottom SAT scores, sky-high rates of domestic violence, health disparities, and an ever-increasing, already staggering debt, to say nothing of the ignorant, homophobic jerks in the Statehouse. (Jason A. Zwiker, Best of Charleston)

Oct. 22, 2008:

John Graham Altman says he’s got a way to improve schools that won’t cost a dime: “You throw the thugs out.”

Aug. 22, 2007:

Backwards thinking has always been prominent in the South, but it may never find a better mouthpiece than former state legislator John Graham Altman III. Say what you will about the man, but he said what he felt — he just didn’t know when not to say what he felt.

After the state Supreme Court ruled that “Choose Life” licence plates were unconstitutional in early 2003, Altman introduced “Choose Death” plates. The City Paper called to ask about the plates, but he refused to talk to us because we endorsed his opponent in the 2002 elections. Another legislative high point came in 2005 when Altman got so frustrated with the state’s meddling in local tax cap plans that he authored a bill allowing Charleston to secede from the state.

In 2003, Altman and others pressured the College of Charleston to ditch a proposal for a new gay studies minor before the curriculum committee had a chance to consider it. When challenged again in the 2004 elections by gay West Ashley resident Charlie Smith, Altman sent a campaign letter out to voters claiming, ” We’ve got to stop that ultraliberal Democrat crowd and the militant homosexual crowd before they do great harm.”

Local gay activist Steve Lepre and his partner, Mark McKinney, created “Militant Homosexual” T-shirts in response. “I’ll keep saying stuff and they can keep putting it on T-shirts,” Altman said.

But the man is best known for his response in 2005 to a female reporter who asked why legislation [banning cock-fighting] was advancing while a domestic violence bill had stalled. Altman replied that he didn’t know why women would go back to an abusive man.

“I mean you women want it one way and not another,” he said.

But the quote we will cherish the most came from a 1999 interview with Altman when he was asked his thoughts about the City Paper.

“I read the City Paper every week and I enjoy it. But in reading it, you sort of pick up a flavor of the audience you are catering to. And you are a niche publication, but it appears to me that you fill your niche very well.”

Sept. 5, 2012

The City Paper’s first nine years as a newspaper were John Graham Altman III’s last nine years as a state legislator, and boy, did we give him hell. Truth be told, he was kind of asking for it, what with his tirades against “the militant homosexual crowd,” his critiques of women who return to abusive partners, and the bill he wrote allowing Charleston to secede from the state over tax cap issues. Altman continued practicing law after leaving office in 2006, but he left the workforce in November 2011. “I didn’t have enough money to retire, so I just quit,” he says. Altman is just as feisty as ever, though. He supports the state Voter ID law, and as a former Charleston County School Board member, he sees the current board as far too deferential. “On Thursday after the election, the Election Commission certifies you as a winner, and they put you in a white unmarked van and take you to the animal shelter, where they spay and neuter you and deliver you over to the superintendent,” he says. That’s our John.

Aug. 23, 2007:

In this week’s big 10th birthday issue, we highlighted our favorite newsmakers over the years. A highlight on the list was former state lawmaker John Graham Altman III. After reading the story, Altman was nice enough to send us a letter congratulating us on our first 10 years. At least, we think it was congratulations. We’ll let you decide.

Your commemorative tenth anniversary issue was well done but it all too modestly glossed over the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of really hard work you folks obviously put in. You have a right to be proud and celebrate. Hard work deserves recognition.

Your first 10 years existence covered the final 10 years of my 30 consecutive years of elected public service to Charleston County and South Carolina. I couldn’t have done it without you and I crave your continued support.
I read your paper every week and enjoy your steadfast journalistic motto: “This story/column is just too good to fact check.”
Congratulations on your “First Ten” — let’s shoot for another “Ten.” I’ll try to give you some more “ammo,” and thanks for the “Five Most Wanted” Award (but shouldn’t Altman come before [Kwadjo] Campbell?).
Cordially, John Graham Altman

Dec. 28, 2005:

“I’m sorry I caused pain to those to whom I really caused pain, and I’m sorry I caused pain to those who might want to say ouch anyway.”
State Rep. John Graham Altman III (R-Chas.) “apologizing” in April from the floor of the state’s House for comments he made about not being able to understand why some women return to their abusive spouses.

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