As we celebrate another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, one particular program stands out as a fixture in the Charleston community. For 38 years the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tri-County Ecumenical Service has provided a proper and inspiring service that benefits our entire community. This year’s service, sponsored by the YWCA of Greater Charleston, is set for 4 p.m., Sun. Jan. 17, at Morris Street Baptist Church (25 Morris St.). The church’s pastor, Rev. Leonard O. Griffin, will be the keynote speaker.
One highlight of the program will be the presentation of the 25th Harvey Gantt Triumph Award. Named for the Charleston native who struggled for three years to become the first black student admitted to Clemson University, this year’s honoree is another Charleston native, Bud Ferillo, Jr., the first white person to earn this award. Many know Ferillo for his award-winning documentary Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.
In order to understand Harvey Gantt, one must first know what he achieved against the odds of hate and fear. In 1959, the Burke High School senior sent a handwritten note to Clemson Agricultural College requesting admission materials. His letter set off more than 40 months of tactical moves by powerful interest groups, engaging in a historical clash over racial segregation. Gantt brought a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Clemson seeking enrollment in its School of Architecture. This prolonged legal struggle ended January 24, 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Clemson Board’s final legal appeal.
On January 28, 1963, Gantt stepped onto Clemson soil as its first black student. He went on to graduate with honors in architecture, receive a master’s degree in city planning from M.I.T., and become Charlotte, N.C.’s first black mayor. Despite being nominated twice, he never became a U.S. Senator, but he did become a nationally acclaimed architect, academician, and politician. Some would argue that he had to leave Charleston to obtain such high accolades.
Ferillo and Gantt traveled similar paths in their fight for civil and human rights and in their rise to national attention. In 1963, when Gantt arrived on the Clemson campus as a student, Ferillo was a senior at Bishop England High School. Ferillo, an activist on the campus of the University of South Carolina, organized a caravan of students in 1966 to travel to Greenwood, Mississippi, to help rebuild three black churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan. During summer breaks from college, Ferillo volunteered with the Citizens’ Committee, directed by the late civil rights pioneer Esau Jenkins, registering voters and helping develop a grassroots political organization of black and poor residents on rural Johns Island.
As Gantt was completing his master’s degree, Ferillo was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government at the College of Charleston. At the 1970 state Democratic convention, Ferillo led the floor fight to delete the support of school segregation from the Democratic Party platform. Two years later, he accepted the appointment as chief of staff to the Speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives and held that position until 1982, when he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. In 1987 Ferillo founded Ferillo & Associates, Inc., a public relations and advertising firm where he currently serves as president. In parallel, Gantt co-founded the Charlotte, N.C., firm of Gantt Huberman Architects, was elected to two terms on Charlotte City Council, one term as mayor pro-tem, and two terms as mayor.
It is good and fitting that people like Harvey Gantt are remembered and people like Bud Ferillo are publicly recognized for their work in the field of civil and human rights. After the King holiday, what will change? After the honors are given, the inspiring words are spoken, the programs enjoyed, will the plight change for those seeking justice and the level playing field of opportunity? More than a street name, a district, and a proclamation are needed in our community if we expect tangible results. In order to honor Dr. King’s legacy, let us walk his talk in all seasons and not just when it is convenient, expedient, and acceptable.