James F. Byrnes and the Politics of Segregation

The Historian, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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James F. Byrnes and the Politics of Segregation


Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1934, Thomas S. Morgan received his B.A. from Davidson College, his M.A. from Duke University, and his Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill. He taught in high school in Baltimore, Maryland, and at Wake Forest University, and UNC-Chapel Hill prior to coming to Winthrop University where he has remained for the past 27 years. From 1978 to 1981 he was dean of Winthrop's College of Arts and Sciences. Morgan and his wife, Nancy, are parents of three sons. In addition, to publishing some scholarly articles, Morgan wrote the Study Guide for George Tindall's America: A Narrative History in its various editions. In 1972 he served as chair of the membership committee of the Southern Historical Association. Morgan served as president of Phi Alpha Theta from 1991 to 1993, presiding over the final years of service of Don Hoffman, the organization's secretary-treasurer, and the selection of Hoffman's replacement, Jack Tunstall. In April 1994, Morgan received an award for his "Outstanding Service and Exceptional Dedication" as Phi Alpha Theta president. This article is a modified version of his 1993 presidential address.

James Francis "Jimmy" Byrnes served as governor of South Carolina from 1951 to 1955 after a long career in more prestigious national offices. He succeeded Strom Thurmond, a symbol of segregation and southern revolt. Byrnes' career fascinates me because I am a product of his era. I spent most of these years as an undergraduate in North Carolina. As a native of Mississippi, I came from a milieu not far different from the anti-black climate of South Carolina during this decade.

My successor as president of Phi Alpha Theta, Arvarh Strickland, the first African American to lead our society, hails from the same Mississippi background that I do. In the past two years we have found dose association together. We have both dedicated our lives and efforts to combat the kind of racism and prejudice reflected in the work of "Jimmy" Byrnes.

One might ask why I have spent considerable time researching the life of a man who actively worked as governor to implement actions contrary to principles I believe in. Byrnes' life merits examination because of his importance to U.S. history and the history of South Carolina. A man of strong principles and convictions, he believed that he worked to improve the South. As historians, we must show that we can return to past events that counter our own sense of morality. We need to understand the climate and nature of those events without prejudice. Our obligation is to immerse ourselves in the past, trying to understand the climate of opinion and action that motivated individuals. It is with this belief that I approach the subject.

James Byrnes was the most politically significant South Carolinian of the twentieth century a man nearly as influential in national politics as John C. Calhoun had been in the nineteenth century. Born in Charleston in 1879, just a few weeks after his father died, Byrnes was reared by his mother and grandmother. Byrnes studied law and joined the bar in 1903, soon after which he edited a newspaper, served as a court reporter, and a solicitor. In 1910 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1911 to 1925. After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 1924, he retreated to law practice in Spartanburg until 1930 when he was elected U.S. senator. By 1932, he was perspicacious enough to support the presidential candidacy of New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. His early and enthusiastic support of Roosevelt resulted in his becoming a close confidant of the president during the New Deal days. He helped the president as a member of the appropriations, banking and currency, and foreign relations committees. Moreover, Roosevelt frequently relied on Byrnes for advice on issues facing the nation. Although not a liberal on racial matters, Byrnes was not as segregationist as his fellow senator, "Cotton" Ed Smith, who walked out of the 1936 Democratic National Convention because a black person was chosen to provide the opening prayer on one day of the convention.

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