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Donaldson: The battle to break the voting barrier

A rusting chain-link fence represents a “color line” for the dead in Columbia, South Carolina.

In Randolph Cemetery, separated by the barrier from the well-manicured lawn of the neighboring white graveyard, lie the remains of George A. Elmore.

A black business owner and civil rights activist, Elmore is little remembered today. But a granite graveside monument attests to the “unmatched courage, perseverance and personal sacrifice” that saw him take on the South Carolina Democratic Party of the 1940s over its whites-only primaries — and prevail.

Nearly 75 years after Elmore’s battle, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates made fervent appeals to African American voters heading into South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.

Some of the all-white field feared it could be a make-or-break matter — that failure to win sufficient black support might prove electorally fatal. And that appears to have proven the case, as Joe Biden’s landslide victory, at a point where many had counted him out, seems to be propelling him to the nomination.

What a far cry that is from the South Carolina of August 1946, when Elmore, fair-skinned, straight-haired manager of a five-and-dime, agreed to try registering as white — and succeeded. That gave NAACP activists a plaintiff to challenge the nation’s last whites-only primary.

The Supreme Court ruled black exclusion unconstitutional in Smith v. Allwright in 1944. But the South Carolina General Assembly simply redefined the state’s Democratic Party as a private club, thus not subject to laws regulating political primaries. Gov. Olin D. Johnston declared, “White supremacy will be maintained in our primaries. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Elmore’s name was promptly purged, but the basis for challenge had been established.

Civil rights attorney Harold Boulware, a graduate of the Howard University School of Law, filed the federal lawsuit. In June 1947, Robert Carter and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, fellow Howard graduates, argued the case.

The trial inspired a packed gallery of African American observers, including young Matthew J. Perry Jr., a future federal district judge, who commented, “Marshall and Carter were hitting it where it should be hit.”

Surprisingly, Judge J. Waties Waring, a Charleston blueblood, agreed. He ruled African Americans must be permitted to enroll. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he concluded.

When the Democratic Party defied the ruling, by requiring prospective voters to sign an oath supporting segregation, Waring issued a permanent injunction. “To say that these rules conform or even pretend to conform to the law as laid down in the case of Elmore v. Rice is an absurdity,” he said.

In the 1948 Democratic primary, more than 30,000 African Americans, including George Elmore and his wife, Laura, got a chance to vote for the first time. Elmore remarked, “In the words of our other champion, Joe Louis, all I can say is, ‘I’m glad I won.’”

In following years, voter education and registration programs organized by civil rights organizations transformed the state’s Democratic Party, both in makeup and policy. The move eventually sparked departure of many white Democrats to the Republican Party, including U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Thurmond’s 1964 defection legitimized the move for other white Democrats, as hard-core segregationists began to increasingly align themselves with the GOP. Not surprisingly, some of the key architects of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, which sought to weaken Democrats’ Southern grip through use of dog-whistle politics on racial issues, emerged from South Carolina.

As this year’s presidential candidates turned their focus to South Carolina, it was obvious the racial makeup of the state’s electorate differed greatly from those of Iowa and New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders coasted to victory.

But Democrats should view the South Carolina primary as more than a shift from voting in small, mostly white states. They should see it as affirmation that the party’s strategic core harbors an African American constituency with diverse interests and perspectives.

African Americans in South Carolina have been fighting and winning battles for voting rights and electoral power since Reconstruction, and as Democrats since the 1940s.

After Elmore’s victory in 1947, state NAACP President James M. Hinton delivered this somber and prophetic warning: “White men want office, and they want the vote of our people. We will be sought after, but we must be extremely careful who we vote for… We must have a choice between those who have fought us and those who are our friends.”

The Elmore family paid a price for challenging the entrenched white control of the Democratic Party of1946. In an interview with the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, which I lead, 81-year-old son Cresswell recalled extensive acts of retaliation.

Ku Klux Klan terrorists burned a cross in the yard and threatened the family. His mother suffered a nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization.

State agents raided Elmore’s store, falsely claiming he had purchased liquor inventory illegally, and smashed the bottles. Vendors began refusing to supply him on credit. Banks called loans on the family home and business, forcing him into bankruptcy.

When Elmore died in 1959, at the age of 53, scant attention was paid to his passing.

The monument came many years later. It was unveiled in a 1981 ceremony attended by a cadre of civil rights veterans, including his original attorney, Harold Boulware.

As the Democratic Party mounts its appeal to African American voters this year, it would do well to remember the remarkable fight Elmore and others waged against the forces of bigotry and injustice. These historical struggles illuminate both the gains made over many generations and the ongoing battle against inequities and voter suppression persisting to this day — not only in South Carolina, but across the nation.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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