In October 2010, I started as a fresh-faced PhD student at the University of Cambridge. I was studying Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, a Democratic state representative, lieutenant governor, governor, and long-serving U.S. senator for South Carolina. I wanted to learn more about how white southern Democrats negotiated the Civil Rights Movement, away from the Dixiecrats and those who left the party once Democrats at a national level became vocal supporters of civil rights legislation. Hollings had made a name for himself in 1963 by calling for the peaceful desegregation of Clemson College (now University) in his farewell address as South Carolina’s governor, rhetoric that contrasted with Alabama Governor George Wallace’s simultaneous pledge to preserve “segregation forever”. Hollings’s papers had recently opened for researchers at the South Carolina Political Collections (800 linear feet of boxes), and while Hollings had published a memoir in 2008, nobody had examined his career in depth.
There followed numerous research trips, mainly to the Hollings Library at the University of South Carolina; first for a month in early 2011, then from August 2011 to May 2012, and several shorter visits after that to round out my research. Moving to Columbia, many things were initially unfamiliar, from simple things like the layout of groceries stores, to the rules of college football and the correct uses of “y’all.”
Throughout my research time, staff members at the Hollings Library (along with those at the Caroliniana and countless university staff) were remarkably helpful. They offered suggestions on finding interesting materials in the Hollings papers and other collections, suggested potential oral history narrators, and even gave advice on the better places to explore southern cooking (more prominent in the UK now, but still unusual to find). Unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed my time in South Carolina! (That I met my now-wife at USC and made fast friends with several keen triathletes and the choir at the Church of the Good Shepherd didn’t hurt either.)
I defended my PhD in December 2013. After some revisions, I signed a publishing contract with the University of South Carolina Press. By November 2016, the book hit the shelves. What changed in the meantime? First, I conducted some additional research on Hollings’s early life and Senate tenure, achieved by visiting the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon presidential libraries, and contacting those who know far more about 1920s residential patterns in Charleston than I do. I also gave more context on how South Carolina and the South changed socially, demographically, and economically from the 1940s to the 1980s. Further, I offered broader reflections on Hollings’s legacy, particularly relating to the on-going challenges facing the state and region, such as persistent racially polarised voting patterns, the partial but incomplete closing of the per capita income gap between the state and the national average, and the state’s loss of manufacturing industries. With the help of Hollings Library staff, Bill Barley, and the U.S. Senate Historical Office, there are now several photographs as well. The result should be (I hope!) a much better read.
Why should you, the reader, care about Hollings? Throughout his career, he gained a reputation as an acid-tongued politician with a willingness to voice what he perceived as hard truths, as with his call to desegregate Clemson in 1963, or his testimony in 1969 that hunger and malnutrition were prevalent in South Carolina (unusual behaviour for a politician who usually touted the state’s economic promise to potential investors). His career bridged the old, white supremacist southern Democratic Party and the contemporary, more racially inclusive one. He was centrally important in moving South Carolinian and southern Democrats away from openly endorsing racial segregation, while his accommodations with black South Carolinians demonstrated the fluidity of southern politics in the 1960s and the tangible, but incomplete, gains African Americans won during the Civil Rights era.
In the late 1960s, Hollings became a key supporter of domestic anti-hunger programs (anybody who has seen ‘WIC’ on food items in grocery stores will have noticed his influence on anti-hunger policy), and by the 1970s was a prime mover in crafting environmental legislation. He represented the moderate end of the electable southern political spectrum, while his career offered a blueprint for success for white Democrats in the post-civil rights South. Re-elected to office with relative ease (except for two close elections in 1992 and 1998), by the time he left office in 2005, Hollings had held a Senate seat for thirty-eight years as a Democrat, in a state that had become consistently Republican at the presidential and state levels. All told in six snappy chapters and an epilogue, if the upheaval of American (especially southern) politics and society since the 1950s interests you, you should like it!
Finally, for those thinking of researching modern political history at the South Carolina Political Collections, I strongly endorse it. The wealth of little-used (or unused) archival materials and the knowledgeable and helpful staff make a trip well worthwhile.
David Ballantyne is a lecturer in American History at Keele University in the United Kingdom. He published his first book, New Politics in the Old South: Ernest F. Hollings in the Civil Rights Era, with the University of South Carolina Press in 2016.