THE CHALLENGE OF CIVIL RIGHTS
McNair faced a multitude of challenges during his term as governor, many of which stemmed from civil rights issues and particularly the integration of public schools. Desegregation in South Carolina was accomplished relatively peacefully, with McNair a voice of moderation and compromise in contrast to the more adamant states’ rights views of most other Southern governors. Still, his term in office was not immune to crises.
On February 8, 1968, a confrontation between police and black students demonstrating at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg resulted in the deaths of three students and injury to at least twenty-five others. The initial protest was a call to desegregate a bowling alley and other local businesses. When emotions escalated, students began throwing objects at state highway patrolmen, who eventually opened fire. Quickly following the incident, S.C. National Guardsmen were sent to Orangeburg to keep the peace. (Photo by Bill Barley) Nine patrolmen were tried and, after pleading self-defense, acquitted. The leader of the protesting students, Cleveland Sellers, was arrested, tried, and convicted for rioting and inciting to riot.
On March 20, 1969, black hospital workers at the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston went on strike to protest the firing of twelve employees and to call for higher wages and union recognition. (Photo at left by Bill Barley) McNair, citing state law, refused to recognize the attempts to unionize. The strike attracted national attention when Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader, Ralph Abernathy, marched with the striking workers. Tensions were further heightened on April 28, when armed black protestors took over two buildings at Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C. A standoff between the police and the protestors lasted one day before the protestors surrendered and were arrested. McNair said of the incident, “Whatever the cause, there will be no negotiation at gunpoint in our state.” The strike lasted until June 27, when the workers and hospital administrators reached an agreement. Some of the workers' demands were met, but their union was not recognized.
In January 1970, federal courts ordered the integration of the Greenville and Darlington County public schools by February 9. McNair provided strong leadership, urging South Carolinians to accept the order and move forward. In a speech broadcast on television on January 28, McNair counseled, “We’ve run out of courts, and we’ve run out of time, and we must adjust to new circumstances.... [The issue facing us] is too important to get drawn into political chicanery and political hypocrisy, and I think it is time for everyone to be honest and sincere to the people of South Carolina and quit holding out false hopes....”
On the ABC network news, commentator Howard K. Smith stated, “Now is the time for all good men to praise Governor Robert McNair of South Carolina. With emotions at a peak over school integration in the South, he said yesterday things it took courage for a Southern Governor to say: stop defiance, accept law, comply. There are no rewards for saying that. Segregationists trying to make water flow uphill will scathe him. Blacks, getting some, but not getting all they want, won’t be happy.... Governor McNair’s words were those of a statesman.”
James Batten, of the Detroit Free Press, wrote, “For the first time in nearly a decade, angry roars of defiance echoed throughout the South last week as Dixie braced for another spasm of massive school desegregation. More than 35 school districts accounting for 700,000 students in eight southern states are scheduled to switch to total integration in the next few days. The bristling rhetoric pouring out of Deep South governors’ offices recalled earlier showdowns between state and federal authority.... A notable exception to the pattern came in South Carolina, where Gov. Robert E. McNair dramatically counseled his people to avoid defiance and bow gracefully to the inevitable.” In response to McNair’s speech, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy wrote on January 28, “I hope some of us can be so courageous in the North.”
On March 3, 1970, in Lamar, S.C., school buses carrying black children were met by a mob of 100 to 200 men and women who stopped and overturned the buses, which were being used to implement a new program integrating the Lamar public schools. The shocking event drew national attention to the state and, along with the subsequent trial of those arrested, brought a flood of mail addressed to the governor from across South Carolina and the nation. These letters represented a cross-section of public opinion, such as these two telegrams, which arrived within minutes of one another — "Demand you stop persecuting people of Darlington County who are fighting tyrants,” and “Prosecute Lamar rioters to full extent of law."
Even considering these crises, South Carolina's schools were integrated with a minimum of such intense confrontations when compared with other Southern states at the time. This was accomplished largely as a result of the conciliatory efforts of Governor McNair.
Left, a cartoon by Eugene Payne, who inscribed along the bottom: "With great admiration for a governor who 'held the door open.'"