Gov. McNair Recollects: Albert Watson & School Integration Incidents in South Carolina

Governor Robert McNair

Former governor Robert McNair was the subject of an exhaustive interview* conducted for the SC Department of Archives and History in the early 1980s.  In his interview, he reflected on the bitter 1970 campaign to succeed him – Lt. Gov. John West versus Republican congressman Albert Watson.  Watson was a popular candidate and pundits thought he could easily lead the Republican Party to its first statewide victory since Reconstruction.

Congressman Albert Watson

The campaign took place during a time of great racial strife and national consternation over the use of busing to achieve racial integration in the public schools.  Watson’s campaign was tarnished by an incident in the small community of Lamar, in Darlington Co., which in January had been ordered by federal courts to integrate its schools.  In late February, Watson appeared at a rally in Lamar supporting freedom of choice, telling the crowd, “Every section of this state is in for it unless you stand up and use every means at your disposal to defend against what I consider an illegal order of the Circuit Court of the United States.”  A few days later, school buses carrying black children were attacked and overturned by a mob in Lamar.  Many saw Watson‘s speech as a factor in inciting the violence.

Then in October, just weeks before the election, a second event occurred that further hurt Watson’s campaign – a fight between black and white students at A. C. Flora High School in Columbia.  Campaign aides of Watson appeared at the school and they were later portrayed as egging the fighters on.  The school had to be closed temporarily because of the resulting tensions.

Gov. McNair mentioned the fight in his oral history and remembered Watson aide Robert Liming as being one of the two men involved.  Liming, a political veteran, was not at the school and when we published the McNair Oral History on our website he contacted us and asked that we correct the record.  We did this by adding a footnote to the interview, both on our site and on the original at the Archives, “McNair biographer Philip Grose and SCPC Director Herb Hartsook disagree with Gov. McNair’s recollection.  They find no evidence that Liming was involved in this incident in any way.”

Recently, SCPC friend Rusty DePass brought us clippings from The State newspaper that identify the Watson staffers as Arch Wilder and Lake High.

Reading these articles reminds me of how far we have come as a society, what a treacherous route we have taken in getting here, and how much we owe to leaders like Fritz Hollings, Donald Russell, Bob McNair and John West who helped oversee our transition to an integrated society.

*SCPC uses oral history to supplement our collections and transcriptions of all of our open interviews are available on our web site for all to read.  We try our best to determine if our narrators’ memories are accurate.  We typically annotate the transcriptions to fill in any gaps and/or correct any misstatements, acknowledging that its difficult for our narrators to perfectly recall events sometimes fifty years or more in the past.

Contributed by Herb Hartsook

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