It was a time of major confusion. An uncouth demagogue had come to power with a mouth filled with profanity and preaching a message of division and hatred that encouraged violence among his followers. This resulted in reactionary laws that set back progress for several decades while “people of good will” were themselves divided, confused and lacking in real leadership in strategy, while the few voices of sense and reason were largely ignored and regulated to obscurity.
Sound familiar? Yes, we have been here before.
As a storyteller and historian, I have searched for true stories that have been long buried that might provide some direction for our confused times. Some 20 years ago, I learned of a speech by Thomas Miller, a Black Charlestonian leader of the Reconstruction era, who made an eloquent reply to U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman, the architect of the segregation laws of our state, in 1895 at the Statehouse in Columbia as these reactionary laws were debated.
I was amazed by this bravery and masterful oratory and was further intrigued to learn the backstory behind this encounter. Tillman of Trenton, S.C., a man who bragged about murdering Black South Carolinians during Reconstruction, rose to power by endorsing the lynching of Blacks and violence against White sympathizers.
By 1895, Blacks had voted in South Carolina for over 30 years and had achieved high elective office. So Tillman played on White resentment of these developments to obtain political power. This was crystalized when Senator Tillman called for the South Carolina Legislature to debunk the progressive 1868 state constitution of Reconstruction that promised rights for all to be replaced by an 1895 constitution that would effectively strip Black South Carolinians of their right to vote and make segregated schools mandatory in the state.
The Blacks of South Carolina formed their own convention and elected six leaders to represent them at the State Constitutional Convention to plead their cause: Robert Smalls, the Black Civil War hero who was a member of the 1868 Constitutional Convention; William J. Whipper, a lawyer who was also at the 1868 Convention; Thomas Miller, who would later become the founding president of S.C. State University; James Wigg and Isaiah Reed, two Beaufort lawyers; and Robert Anderson, a teacher from Georgetown.
These men joined the White delegates in Columbia and gave a series of powerful rebuttals against their plans, in the face of vile insults from the press and most of the White delegates. While the results were predictable, this display of bravery inspired many for years to come and planted the seeds of the future civil rights movement in South Carolina. While this story has appeared in passing in several works on South Carolina history, this book is the first complete volume on this event.
The similarities between then and the political situation of today are clear. Many are blindly following reactionary leadership that plays on the ignorance of their followers, which is resulting in reactionary laws, while the opposition party is blindsided and without clear direction. The clear voices of these men in their spirited defense of fair play and common sense are an important contribution to the dialogue toward solutions in a present time so greatly lacking in these attributes. If readers would take the words of these forgotten heroes into a modern context of action and badly needed direction for present-day America, it would have served a purpose.
Fordham is a Charleston author, lecturer and adjunct professor of history. The History Press recently published his book, The 1895 Segregation Fight in South Carolina. You can purchase it online for $21.99.
This story also appeared in Statehouse Report.
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