Opinion

Despite pressures in the South, Sen. Fritz Hollings made the right choice on civil rights

Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings has died

Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings died Saturday, April 6, 2019, at age 97. This video shows Hollings with John F. Kennedy, Robert Mueller, Andy Griffin, Jim Clyburn and others. He was a World War II veteran, governor and U.S. Senator.
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Former U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings died Saturday, April 6, 2019, at age 97. This video shows Hollings with John F. Kennedy, Robert Mueller, Andy Griffin, Jim Clyburn and others. He was a World War II veteran, governor and U.S. Senator.

The term “southern politician” has a flavor all its own. Familiar as I am with the foibles of that genus politicus, I occasionally wish I could say nicer things about the more exotic specimens. On at least one occasion I had occasion to say nice things about Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who died recently at the ripe age of 97.

I first heard his distinctive Charleston accent — classic Geechee, not a “southern drawl” — on a radio news report late on election night 1960, boasting that John F Kennedy’s had carried his state, and adding the puckish hope that “the country can now catch up with South Carolina.” It was a voice distinguished by unusual phonetics — “faints,” for instance, for what most of us call a ‘fence.“ But catch up with South Carolina, a commonwealth noted for its careful avoidance of the modern? Here was a southern governor who told a good joke too!

A chance to say something nice about Hollings came some years later after he and I had become friends in Washington and at “Renaissance” weekends at Hilton Head. The occasion was Hollings’s announcement for the Democratic nomination — an occasion for praise tempered with merriment — praise for his revealing personal exposure of the racial slums of his state, and merriment that the former South Carolina Attorney General James L. Petigru had greeted secession in 1861 with the remark that his state was “too small to be a nation and too large to be an insane asylum.” Hollings was one of the best, and I thought he would have made a fine president and said so.

He had long since established himself as the foil of his fellow senator Strom Thurmond, who in 1948 had led what came to be labeled (by a Charlotte News headline writer) the “Dixiecrat” rebellion. Thurmond and many other former southern Democrats flocked to the Dixiecrats but not enough to defeat Harry Truman, even in tacit alliance with the Henry Wallace “progressives.”

Such are the strokes of color that lend life, and sometimes a hint of charm, to southern politics. There was also a serious side. Back when his Senate colleague Thurmond was trying to reshape the South into a force for resistance, Hollings may have been in the ranks that stalked out of the Democratic convention when Hubert Humphrey urged the adoption of a civil rights plank. But he was later among those southern governors of the Sixties and Seventies who, as the civil rights challenge developed, took a stand for change and civility. They included Terry Sanford — a Hollings fan who had encouraged him to run for the highest office. And there were others who worked for a more receptive mood, such that when Lyndon Johnson consolidated the civil rights revolution in 1964-65 — at least in the law books — it was less wrenching than it might otherwise have been. Johnson predicted to his White House staff that the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights legislation would prove to be death warrants for the Democratic Party in the Deep South and he was right. A massive conversion of segregationist Democrats to Republicanism followed, so that the virus of racism still shapes southern politics.

But not with Hollings’s acquiescence.

The best story I know about him is this — and it is a fitting farewell: A script from which Ted Kennedy was calling the roll of presidential aspirants listed one who “doesn’t even speak the English language.” Everyone knew Fritz Hollings and his dialect were the targets, and he probably savored the joke. He was a round peg in a square hole and relished the role.

His name stands high on the roll of those who took the saner direction than his antique colleague, Strom Thurmond. His fellow Charlestonian, Petigru, who spoke of nations and nuttiness a century and a half ago, would have been proud.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is retired after a career as a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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