I want to begin by thanking you all for inviting me to speak before your illustrious group. You should realize by now that the South Caroliniana Library is one of (if not the) premier historical libraries in the South, if not the nation. Rarely does a Southern historian embark on a substantive research project without visiting this beautiful and awe-inspiring building. This place oozes history, in its walls and on its shelves. I am privileged to speak here before you today and hope and pray that I can hold perhaps a third of a candle to those who have spoken here in the past. The list reads like an all-star roster of Southern historians and luminaries of the academy: Louis Wright, Dan Hollis, Theodore Rosengarten, Christine Heyrman, Carol Bleser, Bill Freehling, Drew Faust, young Dan Carter, and even the late Cardinal Bernardin.
With such an imposing list of people preceding me, I feel very much like Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, who once asked the world: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Admiral, I feel your pain. Humor aside, it is an honor to be here, and I am grateful for your invitation.
The research for my book, A Question of Justice: New South Governors and Education, began with a trip to this library in the first hours of my visit to this city. I had embarked on research for what would be my dissertation, then my book. For some reason, I decided to begin research on a governor about whom I knew the least. I knew very well who Alabama governor Albert Brewer was, and I knew about Florida governor Reubin Askew. But John West remained a mystery to me until I came here and met Herb Hartsook, who was then curator of the Modern Political Collections. What I found in that collection and in this library meant the difference between success and failure, between graduation and falling back on a marketing and education degree, between publishing and perishing. So I hold this institution close to my heart since it has been so pivotal to my career. Today I wish to share with you a few reflections about my research on West and a few of the Governor’s own words from an interview I conducted with him in 1997.
In Southern politics, 1970 marked a watershed. That year a group of Southern governors entered office and changed the way the nation looked at the South and Southern state chief executives. Across the region, Southern politicians of a new style were elected governor. From the ranks of Democrats came “a no-liquor-no-tobacco Panhandle Presbyterian elder” named Reubin Askew in Florida; John C. West, a racial moderate who rose through the ranks of the South Carolina Democratic Party; a self-styled “country lawyer” in Arkansas’ Dale Bumpers; peanut farmer Jimmy Carter of Georgia; and Terry Sanford and James Hunt of North Carolina. Republicans A. Linwood Holton in Virginia and Tennessee’s Winfield Dunn also represented this new style of governor. In the years after the first generation of New South governors swept into office another generation followed: Bill Winter in Mississippi; David Pryor and Bill Clinton in Arkansas; the James "gang" of Holshouser, Hunt, and Martin in North Carolina; Chuck Robb in Virginia; Dick Riley and Carroll Campbell in South Carolina; and George Busbee in Georgia. Just as the post-World War II economic boom transformed the Southern economy, the combination of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the subsequent political party realignment, and the rise of moderate Southern governors changed the South’s political landscape in 1970.
Perhaps the most important event to the rise of “New South” governors was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For most of these governors, black votes meant the difference in their victory over segregationist candidates. Before the 1965 legislation, black voters were virtually non-existent in the region. By 1967 the situation had changed drastically. The numbers of black voters in the South skyrocketed. As a whole, the region’s black voter registration grew 72.6 percent. The result of such massive increases in black voters was the creation of new majority coalitions in state legislatures and new faces in state government, especially the governor’s office.
The subject of my talk today, John Carl West, rose to power through traditional state Democratic Party connections. Born in 1922 of moderate means, West was raised by his widowed mother on a farm in Camden, South Carolina. After attending The Citadel and earning an undergraduate degree, West served as an Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, West earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina under the GI Bill. After a brief stint as highway commissioner, West ran for and won a state senate seat in 1955, serving for eleven years. In 1966 he won election to the office of lieutenant governor, serving under Governor Robert McNair. By that time, West had made his mark on South Carolina politics as a racial moderate. Earlier in his political life, he had publicly denounced the Klan and had even given the keynote address at a testimonial dinner in honor of national NAACP director Roy Wilkins.
In 1970, with Bob McNair constitutionally unable to succeed himself, West easily won the Democratic nomination and squared off against United States Senator Strom Thurmond’s handpicked candidate, Congressman Albert Watson. A gifted public speaker whose twin brother was a Baptist preacher, Watson also fervently defended segregation. As in many states across the South, the 1970 South Carolina gubernatorial campaign provided voters with a clear choice, segregation versus moderation. With full backing from Senator Thurmond, President Nixon, and the Republican Party, Watson waged the last overtly segregationist campaign in South Carolina political history.
South Carolina’s 1970 campaign illustrated the great impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the obsolescence of racist campaigns in a region where more than half the eligible black population was registered to vote. In the biggest non-presidential election year voter turnout in South Carolina to that date (471,000), West won the governor’s office with 51.7 percent of the vote. West received almost 90 percent of the black vote, and just over 40 percent of the white vote. Black voters represented 25 percent of the total votes cast. West’s victory and ensuing moderate racial course led the New York Times to observe: “The stars and bars of the Confederacy still fly above the South Carolina state capitol. But beyond the heroic statue of Pitchfork Ben Tillman and within the walls of the beautiful old building permanently scarred by shells from Gen. Sherman’s guns, Governor John C. West has set out upon a new political course.”
West’s success as a moderate Democrat in a time when the South was moving closer and closer to being a solidly Republican region came in part from his predecessors. And West was among the first to admit it. He often cited Governors Fritz Hollings, whom he affectionately called a “stubborn Dutchman,” and Bob McNair as formative influences in his political life and credited their calming influence in a turbulent time for much of the relative peace he enjoyed during his term.
John West perceived that integration meant more than just placing black and white children in the same classroom. He attempted to meet the needs of disadvantaged black children who had been left behind white students because they had been mired in dual education systems. West also committed to allaying fears on the part of both black and white parents that with integration came school disorder and violence. His commitment to order and discipline helped make South Carolina’s one of the smoothest transitions to integrated schools. John West was the only governor in this group not to pass substantive conventional education reform legislation. West was forced to pursue other funding options, including reviving his state’s flagging economy and making South Carolina a full member of the rising Sunbelt South. But he also had to mollify increasingly militant teachers in search of long-awaited pay increases. He succeeded at both, but not without an ironic price. The affluence West brought his state doomed any serious impetus for education reform beyond teacher pay raises.
West traveled to Europe and Asia, selling his state as a sound investment. In his first ten months in office, he visited Europe three times. In 1971 he visited the International Trade Fair in Switzerland. Visits to Germany, Japan, India, and an international textile exposition in France all paid dividends. Japanese and German companies built plants in Orangeburg and Spartanburg, producing petrochemicals, steel, and synthetic fibers. By 1972 West Germany had invested more money in South Carolina than in any other state ($377.4 million) followed by Great Britain ($335.6 million) and the Netherlands ($50 million). So enamored with Germany was West that he took an overnight trip to West Germany to give a speech, but only made the trip after securing a promise by German officials that he would have a personal audience with the directors of various German firms, several of whom wished to discuss expanding investments in South Carolina. The French built their first United States investments, Michelin tire plants, in Greenville and Anderson Counties, which comprised the largest single initial foreign investment in the state’s history at more than $200 million. West opened state offices in Brussels in 1971 and, three years later, in Tokyo.
The results were extraordinary. Between 1971 and 1973 more than 470 new industries and plants located in South Carolina, creating 41,383 jobs and a total investment of $2.2 billion. In 1972 foreign investment in South Carolina comprised 10 percent of the total foreign investments in the United States. The state was so successful in attracting investment that other states patterned their development boards after South Carolina’s.
The following passages are selected quotes from an interview I conducted with West in 1997. He was honest, forthright, and genuinely interested in speaking with this fledgling scholar and responding to my elemental questions.
On Getting Involved in Public Service
“I was elected to the state highway Commission in 1948. I was a compromise selection. The highway commission job was quite a political plum at that time. They were just paving roads and the Highway Commissioner had a lot of influence. And I determined then that I was through with politics. I had seen the political world and I wanted to be a lawyer’s lawyer and I wanted to practice law and make a living and all of those good things.
“And I went along on that until 1953. On a Sunday evening, our oldest son, who was about 2 ½ to 3 years old, suddenly had a convulsion. So we rushed him to the hospital. And the hospital in Camden here was a gift of Bernard Baruch, whose father was a Confederate surgeon, and the hospital was an old mansion that had wings built on it. It had one, maybe, pediatric private room, and a virus was going around. And they had a ward with the little boys and little girls. And, of course, every three hours they’d go around and stick them with penicillin, so it was bedlam.
“My wife was in with our son, the baby, and I was pacing the halls. About 7 o’clock that morning my uncle, who was the senior doctor here, and for whom I was named, came in and I said, ‘Uncle Carl, this hospital is a disgrace. It is just inadequate.’ He said, ‘Son, I know it is. Mr. Baruch has told us that we need to have a public facility....He’s going to leave us a hundred thousand dollars in his will, but that’s it. We are creating a new hospital board, a public board, and we need young men like you to serve on it.’ Of course, I said sure. I was elected chairman. So we did the studies and determined that we ought to abandon the old hospital and build a new hospital on the new site. We had consultants and everything. Well, that created a real political problem...because to renovate the old hospital would cost, and this is in ’52 dollars, [$1.25 million]. To build the new hospital was $2 million. And...a lot of the people said that this would be bad for Mr. Baruch’s memory [to build a new one].
“Claytor Arrants, the senator who supported it, was running [unsuccessfully] for lieutenant governor, against Governor Hollings.... The Senator was the boss of the county at that time. And it was put to me, rightly or wrongly, that if you want a new hospital built, you’ve got to run for the senate. I bought that; my wife didn’t.
“So, I ran for the senate, and at the same time we had a referendum on whether to build a new hospital on a new site. When the votes were counted I had won by three votes out of about 10,000. The hospital had carried...by 36 votes. So, some of the statisticians said that it was obvious that the issue was 12 times more popular than the candidate who espoused it.
“Plus, my wife still says to this day that if she and her mother hadn’t changed their minds on the way to the polls, I would have stayed home and been a better husband, father, and provider. But, anyhow, that was my real motivation, and the election that year, 1954, was June 10. On May 17 Brown v. Board of Education was decided and all of a sudden segregation became an issue. My opponent was a longtime political person. He had lost the previous senate race by 13 votes, and I beat him by three...but the fact is I squeaked by, and that’s the way I got into politics.
“It was primarily the hospital issue, and, of course, health care delivery became a major interest of mine from that time on. We had just to close a chapter on the hospital. We built the new hospital on the new site. We converted the old hospital into the Bernard Baruch nursing home and everyone was reasonably happy.”
On His Run-Ins With the Klan
and His Neighbor, the Grand Dragon
“Well, I became the so-called target of the Klan then [after having denounced a Klan beating of a local white high school band leader who was leading a local black school band].
“I lived 6 miles out in the country. The Grand Dragon was a neighbor of mine. I’d known him all my life. He was a 53-year-old retired contractor. They met every Tuesday night. Well, the first time I’ve ever known about bugging, SLED put a bug in the light bulb. This was in 1956. And every Wednesday morning Pete Strom would come over and brief me on what the Klan had said and what they were doing. They were right nasty. They called my uncle, who was a doctor, and told him my children were dying or dead. And they tried to run my wife off the road. At that time I had quite an interest in the newspaper, and the newspaper took a very strong stand against them. So they started tearing down the news racks and threatened the editor and the publisher. I carried a pistol for two years. When I ran for re-election in 1958 we had 12 or 15 [campaign speeches] all over the county. They had a delegation that would go with red plaid shirts and sit on the front row. My wife would go and hand one of my cards to them.
“Yep. It was a difficult time. But I had the privilege of putting them in bankruptcy, selling their property, and I’ve often told the story that sometimes there are uncanny judgments that are sent. They never served a day and were never indicted. But within a year the Grand Dragon, who was 53 years old, had a stroke and he was completely disabled. The Grand Klaxem, the one who had actually done the hitting. No, the Grand Dragon had a heart attack. The Grand Klaxem had a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. I had the privilege a couple of years later of helping his wife get him in the rehabilitation program at the Medical University in Charleston.
On Running for Governor in 1970
Gordon Harvey: “It is 1970 and you are running for governor and your opponent is Albert Watson, Republican, but once a very rabid Democrat. And your campaign...made a point of bringing up some old quotes that he had said about how great the Democratic Party was just a few years after he switched. But from what I understand, you once taught him law at USC. Is that correct?”
John West: “No, I taught him political science. And, as I tell the story, when they were doing my campaign brochures, they brought up the fact that I had taught him, and I said, ‘no.’ They said, “Why not?” And I said, “I gave him an A.” So neither one of us ever mentioned that.”
On All the Press Coverage
and Acclamation for the 1970s Governors
“Oh boy...our egos were built. Time came out, you know, with Jimmy Carter and the New South governors. The press said that we [were] the future leadership of the nation, and we took a straw poll at the first Southern Governors’ Conference and we said that the governor of, let’s see, of Oklahoma, was the best candidate for president. He was a white-haired Phi Beta Kappa. Indian wife. He ended up in jail. Jimmy Carter didn’t get a vote.”
On Selling the “New” South Carolina to Outside Investors
“A little symbolic thing I did, that I still enjoy thinking about. When we had our first National Governors’ Conference after my election...in Washington and you could take one aide, I took Jim Clyburn. Everybody would look at him and say, ‘Well, you from New York?’ And they’d look [at his name tag]: South Carolina. They couldn’t believe it. The only black aide there. I was the only governor who had a black aide at the meeting, at the Governors’ Conference. That got some attention and I think was a good symbol.”
On Creating a Technical Education System
“I remember it very well, in the early days with Hollings. We had a luncheon, Hollings did, at the Governor’s Mansion. We had the CEOs of several major corporations there who had plants in South Carolina, and we had just gotten a survey that showed that two-thirds of our workforce was functionally illiterate. I asked one of the CEOs, I think it was Emerson Electric Company, ‘What would you do if you could wave a magic wand to transform South Carolina?’ He said, ‘I’d put M.I.T. at Columbia.’ And I guess that remark, that I remember very well after forty some odd years now, really impressed me with the value of education. And, of course, out of our deliberations and studies we developed the technical education program and the adult education program. Of course, in Lee County, a neighboring county here, I remember very well the statistics. It was something like this: only ten percent of the students got high school diplomas. Only some minuscule percentage went on to college. Yet all the curriculum was basically college oriented. Some shop and agriculture class, so there was a gap there that we had to fill.”
On Being Called the “Father of Technical Education”
in South Carolina
“Of course, the Technical Education system was a tremendous success and we were emulated, imitated all over the South. We finally...had to put in a policy that we’d be glad to show you, any governor or state official, understanding that you wouldn’t try to hire any of our people. Of course, we had hired the key people from North Carolina.
“In the campaign of 1965-66 I was running for lieutenant governor. McNair was running for governor. And Hollings was running for the Senate. Mendel Rivers, Congressman from Charleston, the legendary Congressman, was a master of ceremonies at a speaking down at Charleston. Well, we each had given him what we wanted said about us as an introduction. Started out with Hollings: ‘He’s the father of technical education.’ Fritz got up and made a speech, followed by McNair. Rivers said, ‘The father of technical education.’ That was fine. It got to me. ‘The father of technical education...John, you and Fritz and Bob have a paternity suit [here].’
“I actually wrote the bill. I wrote it on a yellow pad and stuck it in as an amendment. It was one of the most poorly drafted things you’d ever seen. I remember there was one page: “there is hereby created a State Committee for Technical Education, to consist of five members appointed by the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate. They shall plan and implement a program for technical and vocational training for the state of South Carolina.” That was it. A few years later somebody came in and said, “You know, that’s the strangest damn law.” They said, “It doesn’t prescribe the terms of the members or when they expire.” It was true. Once you were appointed, there were no set terms or expirations, and we had to amend it.”
On Strom Thurmond
“Strom’s strength is that he makes no enemies. He will go out of his way to make a friend of an enemy. And that’s been the secret of his success: constituent service and really doing as much for an opponent as he will do, and he has won a lot of people. He won me for a while. He campaigned harder for Albert [Watson] than Albert did. And, of course, Nixon and Thurmond were very close.
“[The state] needed money...and we knew that the government had these discretionary funds, particularly HEW (Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and so on for pilot and demonstration projects. McNair had created a great staff that specialized in that, and I supplemented and supported them. So, we would put in requests, write up projects that were very good. And we...developed a good relationship with the bureaucracy, the assistant secretary, deputy assistant, and then we let Thurmond announce them. I know, the...Deputy Secretary of Labor looked at me one day and he said, ‘John, dammit, do you realize that you got more money out of our discretionary fund than New York State? [And] they’ve got a Republican governor.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and do you realize that there has not been one Democrat that has taken credit for it? Thurmond has announced every one.’”
On the Future of the Democratic Party
“Well, that’s a question I can’t answer satisfactorily. Fritz Hollings says we have no Democratic Party. Of course, I use the Will Rogers statement when he said, ‘I don’t belong to any party, I’m a Democrat.’ We’ve had no party per se because we lack the discipline, we lack the patronage. The Republicans have said ‘we don’t leave our wounded on the battlefields,’ and the Democrats don’t have that feeling. I think, even with the distaste that many feel for Mr. Clinton, the Democrats are becoming more respectable.”
On the Large Amount of Foreign Investment in South Carolina
During His Term in Office
“Well, let me give you the history of that. I had become part of our industrial development program and, of course, the solicitation of foreign industries and...when I was lieutenant governor Bob McNair sort of gave me carte blanche to do that and so we worked out the programs so that by the time I became governor we had more West German investment in South Carolina than all the rest of the country combined.”
On Becoming Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
“As my governor’s term [ended], I became involved in a group created by Dean Rusk when he left the Secretary of State’s office, the Southern Center for International Studies. Still exists [established in 1962, based in Atlanta]. So when I left the governor’s office, I became even more active and...became chairman of that group in 1975, early 1976. And Dean Rusk was on the board. Cy Vance was on the board. It was a very good group. And I’ll never forget, we had a seminar at The Citadel just after the November elections of 1976. The subject was the role of the executive versus the role of the Congress in the making and implementation of foreign policy. They had three former Secretaries of State there. It was fascinating. After the meeting, Dean asked me, ‘Well, John, what position are you going to take in the Carter administration?’ I was the first public official outside Georgia to endorse Jimmy, and the press had been speculating that I may have gotten a Cabinet position or something. I said, ‘Well, I really haven’t been offered anything and frankly don’t want anything that would take me to Washington. I just see no future there.’ But, I said, ‘What do you think about the diplomatic posts? What do you really think about political people in diplomatic posts?’ He said they could do a real service and so on. He said, ‘Where do you think you’d like to go?’ And I said, ‘Saudi Arabia.’ He said, ‘You gotta be kidding. There has never been a political appointee, to my knowledge, to go to an Arab country. We got some great posts in Europe and some in South America.’ I said, ‘Dean, I’ve got all the titles I need. I’ve got the best living conditions in the world, but there is a challenge there because I think Saudi Arabia holds the key to peace and prosperity in the next ten years.’ So, when Carter took office, he appointed a committee to screen prospective ambassadors, and Dean Rusk was chairman of it. So, that was how I got to be ambassador.”
On Being Southern in the Middle East
“...it helped....I told people who asked me how I got along as well as I seemed to, the language was different, the culture was different, the religion was different, [but] people were amazingly like South Carolina, and politics were the same. It’s a people game. And, if you had the Southern approach, I used to say, Saudi Arabia and South Carolina, same thing. And it is true, the people are very gracious, very hospitable, almost too hospitable in terms...and very polite. It was very comfortable.”
On Sunnis vs. Shiites
“...what most people don’t realize is the divisions within the Muslim religion. I well recall Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is the Ambassador now, but he was a young captain in the Air Force when I first got to know him. We developed a real warm relationship. He used to say that I was the only ambassador who had a prince as an aide. I said, ‘Bandar, what is the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni?’ He’s got a good sense of humor and says, ‘Now you’re from South Carolina, and you have what you call foot-washing Baptists there, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘If you could imagine the difference between a very devout Catholic and a foot-washing Baptist and multiply that by a factor of ten, you will get some idea of the difference.’”
On Football in South Carolina
“I tell the story when I was running for governor and The Citadel played Clemson, of course The Citadel was completely outclassed. But I was sitting in the president’s box with all the Clemson trustees. All of them leaders, you know. My wife is a much more avid sports fan than I am, and The Citadel made the first touchdown. Well, Lois went crazy. She jerked up [and cheered for The Citadel] and I said, ‘Sit down. I’m losing votes!’”
Legacies are hard to determine and are often arbitrarily declared and applied by historians or pundits. They are often not completely true to life. But I believe that West’s legacy is that of a public servant who deeply cared about his state, his fellow citizens, and his region; a person who believed that one could make a difference. I often rail at nostalgia and how it clouds public memory, so forgive me if I do wax nostalgic for a bit. I believe that West served in a time when politics in the South and nation did not have the callous timbre we suffer through today. He operated in a time when Democrats and Republicans could have dinner with each other—in public—without suffering the wrath of voters or party officials. For that reason, the USC Department of Political Science created the John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy, which provides students with a look at government in a bipartisan/nonpartisan manner, where glory for the individual is subservient to the welfare of the public. To be sure, West enjoyed a good hard fought campaign, but after the election he was ready to serve and do good work. I can think of no higher honor for John Carl West than to say of him that he thought of South Carolina before he thought of himself. Upon his death, state and national newspapers and commentators praised his positions attained, his achievements in office, and his political acumen. But no one gets to the heart of his legacy more than Chief Justice Jean Toal of the South Carolina Supreme Court. In her 2004 address to the West Forum, Chief Justice Toal remarked about West’s legacy, “He wanted to be remembered for one thing—as a good man.” Well, I think West met that goal, and then some.