I criticized John Graham Altman III enough in life that I feel it would be dishonest to laud him now in death. His passing last week, at the age of 79, will hopefully mark the end of an ugly era of politics in Charleston County.
Altman is a reminder of how far we have come in race relations in recent years. Other more famous racists and segregationists have died in the last two decades, men who left their mark on the civil rights era, but on the opposite side of the ledger from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Septima Clark.
When he served in the state House of Representatives, one of his colleagues called Altman the “Jesse Helms of the General Assembly.” Indeed, like Helms and former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, Altman died as he had lived — a very public and unapologetic bigot. He did not have an emotional conversation on racial attitudes and beg forgiveness, as did Alabama’s George Wallace. He did not quietly walk away from his racist past and turn a new page, à la Strom Thurmond. If he ever had a conversation or a doubt, it was in the silence of his own heart, in the privacy of his gothic home on Folly Road.
Indeed, Altman was a gothic figure, and like more famous politicians from the South’s gothic past, he was a flamboyant, confrontational, heavy drinker with a lust for power. He ran three times for the General Assembly in the 1960s without success. In 1976, he was elected to the Charleston County School Board, where he spent 20 years bullying and demeaning his fellow board members.
He once said of his colleagues, “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.”
For their part, those colleagues variously called him an obstructionist, an idiot, and a jackass. Board member Robert New accused Altman of playing to the media and called him the Jimmy Swaggart of the school district, a man who did not practice what he preached. “He’s a demagogue,” New said. “He truly is and that’s sad because he’s so bright. John was the man who should have been something great in this world.”
He belligerently opposed school busing and on one occasion proposed a white history month.
In 1996, Altman was finally elected to the state House of Representatives from District 119. In 10 years there he spoke defiantly against an MLK holiday, against interracial marriage, and in favor of keeping the Confederate flag flying above the Statehouse. In 2003, a member of the legislative black caucus physically confronted him on the House floor and accused him of obstructing any black-sponsored legislation.
When former Charleston Solicitor David Schwacke came out of the closet in 1997, Altman denounced him, saying Schwacke had “confessed to actions the Bible calls sin and state law calls a felony.” In 1999 hearings on a hate crimes bill, Altman said any law to protect homosexuals was “pedophile protection” legislation. When the College of Charleston flirted with the idea of a gay and lesbian studies program, Altman threatened to cut off funding for the public school. Ditto, when SCETV aired a program calling for tolerance toward gays and lesbians.
For all of his public rectitude, Altman’s private life was a mess. Heavy drinking led to the break-up of his first marriage in 1969. When he failed to pay child support, a judge ordered him jailed on weekends. He eventually got his drinking under control, but told an interviewer in the 1990s that he continued to bet on sporting events, which is against state law.
Because he defended the racial and sexual shibboleths of white voters, Altman was deemed a worthy keeper of the public trust. Indeed, he held public office for three decades. Altman enjoyed the love and admiration of the local GOP until the very end, including current House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who told the Post and Courier, “John Graham Altman was a true conservative … John was a dear friend of mine, and we are all going to miss him.”
At the end of the day, John Graham Altman III was a demagogue and a fear-monger, who used his considerable powers of persuasion to mislead a frightened and gullible public. He could quote scripture at one moment and lash out at blacks, gays, atheists, liberals, and the media at the next. To understand Altman is to understand why Southern politics remain so mean, divisive, and ineffective.
Will Moredock blogs at willmoredock.com