In Columbia last Tuesday, I witnessed the public funeral service for former Gov. Robert Evander McNair, who led the Palmetto State into the modern era during a decade marked by civil, social, and racial discord and tremendous progress in public education and economic development.
McNair began his career by entering the S.C. House in 1950 and was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. He was appointed governor in 1965 and elected in his own right in 1966. His inaugural ball was noted for its openness — the McNairs had desegregated their guest list.
McNair’s tenure in the Governor’s Mansion is distinguished by the lid he and other forward-thinking politicians and businessmen managed to keep on the racial unrest dividing other Southern states at the time. This is not to say that the state was without racial problems or civil rights demonstrations.
Gov. McNair was somehow able to integrate the social concerns of the metropolitan elites, white and black, with the economic plans of the state’s business class, who wanted the state to move away from the declining farming and textiles industries and move into the high revenue growth areas of light industry, tourism, government facilities, and military bases. These business leaders realized that segregation could be measured in real dollars and only exacerbated the state’s desperate poverty. By doing so, McNair crafted a moderate political approach that provided room for both law-and-order and progressive social change.
McNair was also captain of the watch during two of the darkest chapters in South Carolina’s checkered past when two S.C. State students and a local high schooler were killed by police during an ugly civil rights demonstration in Orangeburg in February 1968. At a press conference the next day, McNair called the incident “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.” In 2006, McNair took personal responsibility for the Orangeburg massacre saying that he was the governor at the time and it was his fault because he hadn’t succeeded in preventing it.
In March 1970, an angry white mob overturned a just-emptied school bus that had been carrying African-American children to a desegregated school in Lamar as federal marshals stood by and watched. McNair had led the charge for a single public school system and was most distressed by the incident. In his words, Orangeburg and Lamar were both “scars on our state’s conscience.”
As I watched the assembled gather and listen to the kind words extolling the late governor’s generosity and compassion for the disenfranchised of South Carolina, I thought a lot about McNair’s tenure.
I spoke with state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) after the service. She told me, “I regret not knowing him in the sense that other state elected officials knew him personally because I didn’t grow up here, but what I know of him and his example as governor, I admire. I felt compelled to come here and pay my respects.”
I also stood near an older white man outside who was visibly shaken and told me that he “was too upset” to enter the First Baptist Church.
I saw roughly 40 homeless people across the street enjoying the lunchtime generosity of the Washington Street Methodist Church during McNair’s funeral and noted that even though McNair had stuck his neck out during one of the biggest periods of social upheaval in South Carolina and ushered in a modern economy, we still have a ways to go.
Even so, I think that if all South Carolinians take the time to recall the recent past — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the joyous — that embodied McNair’s term as governor, we can once again accomplish the great things for which we are destined.
University of South Carolina historian Walter Edgar eulogized McNair by saying that, “He had a choice … He could have taken the well-worn road that looked to the past and followed the voices of division and hate, but he didn’t. He chose to follow the road less traveled, the road of moderation and justice, the road of the future, a road that all South Carolinians could use.”
We can do better, and Bob McNair made some of the first steps in that direction.