In conservative political circles, the term “progressive” gets a bad rap. It harkens back to a bygone era of state and municipal activism, a time when governments spent tax dollars on pricey public works projects and special interest groups lobbied for civil protections. It seems the opposite of Charleston’s sense of its own past as a city long committed to fiscal conservatism and revered historical traditions. But is it? Scratch the surface of Charleston’s red-state veneer and you will find a decidedly different set of traditions. Charleston has a far more progressive tradition than you might think.
During the early 20th century, Charleston was, like cities throughout the nation, steeped in progressive politics. The city’s modern incarnation dates to the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) when a string of reform-minded mayors ran the city. The most radical was John P. Grace, an Irish-Catholic, anti-war, pro-labor mayor who invested heavily in public works projects like roads and bridges. He helped plan the city’s first water and sewage system, and poured money into local public schools. These reforms, which mirrored those in other, much larger cities during the Progressive Era, were notable not only for their utter lack of fiscal restraint but also because they challenged entrenched beliefs about the proper size and reach of the government.
Even when Grace broke with the formal Progressive Movement, he was still a progressive. Reformers at the national level bargained with one another in order to pass an unpopular prohibition amendment (which few of them really wanted) in 1919, but Grace refused to crack down on drinking and gambling. This put him at odds with the city’s elites, who deplored the Holy City’s reputation for vice, but it endeared him to the longshoremen and working classes who kept the city’s saloons in business. Indeed, Grace made a sport out of antagonizing Charleston elites and aiding the underprivileged. He attacked the popular gospel of Civil War nostalgia and repudiated the backward politics of the Lost Cause. Few state officials and even fewer local ones ever did the same, progressives or not.
And although Charleston has always had deeply troubled history with regards to race, there has always been a progressive impulse for change that should not be overlooked. During the Civil Rights Movement, Charleston was actually a symbol of great hope and success. One of the state’s first NAACP chapters was founded here in 1917, and two years later the group successfully lobbied the state legislature to hire black teachers for the city’s black schools. One of the volunteers for that campaign was Septima Clark, a young Johns Island schoolteacher who became a leader in the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Few people know that a federal judge in Charleston helped to lay the legal groundwork for national desegregation. Before the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education overturned the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine that had been established during the late 19th century, several test cases in South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of segregated school districts. In fact, activists hoping to desegregate schools in South Carolina found an unlikely hero in Federal Judge Julius Waties Waring, scion of Charleston elites and son of a Confederate veteran. Waring became a radical voice in favor of desegregation in the 1940s during a time when few whites supported even a moderate stance on the issue. Waring’s decisions in several South Carolina test cases directly challenged the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed businesses to create separate facilities for blacks and whites. Significantly, his ruling in a 1951 case, Briggs v. Elliott, directly tackled the issue of school segregation in Clarendon County, S.C., ultimately creating the legal logic that the Supreme Court used to strike down school segregation nationwide in the Brown case in 1954.
Charleston reared some of the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, although they are often overlooked because they focused their reform efforts at the community level. In recent years, historians have begun to pay particular attention to the roles of women as “bridge leaders” in the movement — the ones who organized the marches, ran the voter registration drives, housed and fed the college kids who poured into the South to volunteer, and bailed them out of jail when they were arrested. Along with Clark, a teacher-turned-activist whose Citizenship Schools educated African-American women and men to become leaders in local civil rights struggles, many black women in Charleston were foot soldiers in the local freedom struggle long before the modern phase of the Civil Rights Movement began. Their legacy inspired similar work in a new generation of black women like Mary Moultrie, a 1960 graduate of Burke High School who led the MUSC hospital workers strike in 1969 against unfair treatment of African-American employees. Moultrie and her co-workers did not get the union they wanted, but hospital officials agreed to rehire employees fired for organizing and instituted new grievance procedures that the workers demanded.
All of these examples speak to Charleston’s progressive political tradition and exemplify the city’s deep tradition of civic activism. And despite Charleston’s reverence for Southern aristocracy, like every port city it has always been a diverse community of elites, working classes, and transients who shape its political and economic institutions in interesting and complex ways.
We’re doing right by that tradition today, for the most part. Present-day Charleston has a dynamic political scene that mixes college students, retirees, small business owners, and a large and vibrant LGBT community. Last month, the city came very close to electing the state’s first openly gay official in a contested election. Fittingly, the race was for a seat on the Charleston Water Commission, one of the greatest legacies of the city’s Progressive Era transformation. For a city steeped in history and nostalgia for the past, Charleston has always fostered an equally strong civic impulse to look forward and to embrace reform.