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L. Marion Gressette papers, ca. 1920-1984

"Governors come and go, but Gressette has remained and become a legend." Thus stated former governor John C. West at a 1981 testimonial dinner honoring South Carolina state senator Marion Gressette. Nicknamed the "Gray Fox" due to his legislative cunning and slicked-back gray hair, Gressette's forty-seven-year presence in the senate chambers, 1937-1984, commanded the respect of political allies and adversaries. At the time of his death it was said no man might ever again accrue the power which Gressette had acquired over the years.

Lawrence Marion Gressette was born on 11 February 1902 in the Center Hill section of Orangeburg County. He was the fourth of eight children born to planter John Thomas and Rosa Emily Wannamaker Gressette. A lifetime of public service in the General Assembly began in the lower chamber, where Gressette served from 1925 to 1928 and from 1931 to 1932. He was elected to the South Carolina Senate in 1936 and served from 1937 until his death on 1 March 1984. Gressette chaired a number of powerful committees during his career, including the Education Committee, 1951-1955; Judiciary Committee, 1953-1984; Rules Committee, 1959-1974; Highways Committee, 1973-1975; and Natural Resources Committee, 1945-1950. Gressette was elected President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 1972.

Gressette is best remembered for his roles on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the South Carolina School Committee, which have often been referred to as "Gressette's Graveyard" and the "Gressette Committee." Although some legislators considered the Judiciary Committee a "graveyard" for good legislation, former governor John West noted that "no one will ever fully appreciate all the potentially bad laws that Senator Gressette has mercifully laid to rest for this state." Gressette, a master of parliamentary procedure, often exercised his power in the Judiciary Committee by tabling legislation he opposed.

Between 1951 and 1966, Gressette chaired a fifteen-man committee appointed by the governor to seek legal means to avoid forced integration of the state's public schools. Dubbed the "Gressette Committee," its historic role during the Civil Rights era in South Carolina has been an issue of debate for scholars and journalists, who have speculated on the committee's original intent and legacy. In later years, Gressette observed—"The committee's real accomplishment was in preventing violence such as occurred in some other southern states" (3 March 1984).

While Gressette's leadership battling integration made him a symbol of intransigence, later actions reflected his ability and willingness to evolve and change as South Carolina society changed. In 1972 he was instrumental in helping draft legislation to establish a permanent state agency, the Human Affairs Commission, to work toward eliminating and preventing racial discrimination. He supported legislation in 1978 that proclaimed the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a state holiday, and he played a key role in helping draft a desegregation plan for state colleges and universities in 1981. Governor Richard W. Riley best summarized Gressette's character at a memorial service held in the Senate chamber on 6 March 1984—"There were times over the years that Senator Gressette and I disagreed on the floor....But without exception I always found him to be an honorable opponent, a man of great integrity, and unfailing courtesy, a man of respect."

The L. Marion Gressette papers consist of seven and a half linear feet of material, ca. 1920-1984. The collection primarily contains public papers from the 1970s to 1984; a small but significant group of records dates from 1953 to 1956. The collection is arranged in five series: General Papers, Topical Files, Speeches, Audio-Visual Material, and Clippings.

General Papers, 1953-1956 and 1971-1978, include correspondence with constituents and colleagues, notes, reports, and legislative records. Letters dating from 1953 to 1956 offer revealing insights into South Carolina's political climate during a period of heightened racial tension and uncertainty concerning the future of the national Democratic Party in South Carolina. Correspondence between Gressette and other members of the Democratic Executive Committee addresses the need for South Carolina Democrats to work together to get the state, as one Democrat wrote, "back in harness." Many political colleagues, confident of Gressette's legislative acumen and popular appeal, also wrote encouraging Gressette to run for governor or seek a South Carolina Supreme Court nomination. Other 1950s correspondence regards the Calhoun County Legislative Delegation, the Highways Department, Clemson University, and Winthrop College. Papers generated during the 1970s focus on issues such as unemployment, education, and the South Carolina Finance Equalization Act.

Topical Files, 1965-1983, are chiefly legislative files relating to Gressette's committee work as well as issues of local, state, and national interest. Extensive files document Gressette's role in helping defeat the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in South Carolina, 1971-1978. This material consists of correspondence, newsletters, advertisements, and petitions for or against the ERA, as well as papers relating to the International Women's Year Conferences held in Columbia in July 1977, and in Houston, Tx., the following November.

As first vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, Gressette strongly opposed the movement to make Winthrop College co-educational. The collection contains correspondence from Winthrop alumni and constituents, 1965-1975, as well as reports and statements from various organizations and individuals, including the transcript of a 1972 Senate Education Committee hearing discussing the future of the school. Extensive newspaper clippings about this issue are located in the Clippings series.

Papers reflecting Gressette's participation in the South Carolina State Reorganization Commission date from 1972 to 1983. These include meeting minutes, information related to the Commission's history and budget, and responses of several state agencies to a questionnaire designed by the Commission to assess an agency's organizational structure, function, and programs. Records of the Commission's "Sunset Review," a process by which state agencies were assigned termination dates and required to document their progress to the Commission to remain in existence, constitute the majority of material between 1979 and 1983.

Gressette represented three counties between 1937 and 1984. Although he served Calhoun County throughout his entire career, re-districting expanded his representation to include portions of Orangeburg County in 1967 and Dorchester County in 1969. Records of his service in these two counties include correspondence, notes, reports, and drafts of budget appropriations. Documents relating to Gressette's service in the Calhoun County Legislative Delegation are not as voluminous as the Orangeburg/Dorchester material and are located in the General Papers series.

Speeches, 1950-1977, consist of handwritten and typed manuscripts. Topics of early speeches include segregation, budget appropriations, reapportionment, and federal and state relations. Gressette's speeches from the 1970s announce his support for then Lieutenant Governor John West during West's gubernatorial campaign and later in support of West's gubernatorial accomplishments.

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