Former South Carolina Gov. Robert E. McNair has broken his silence and taken responsibility for the Orangeburg Massacre.
For decades, McNair has refused to talk about the deaths of three Black students, shot at South Carolina State University by state troopers in February 1968. McNair sent the National Guard and troopers to campus to keep the peace after two days of protests over a segregated bowling alley.
But he addresses the incident in a new biography, “South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights,” written by Philip G. Grose.
“The fact that I was governor at the time placed the mantle of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and I have borne that responsibility with all the heaviness it entails for all those years,” said McNair, now 83.
The incident just covers a chapter in the biography of a man University of South Carolina history professor Walter Edgar said doesn’t get enough credit for helping South Carolina integrate peacefully.
“I think McNair’s decision to lead South Carolina down the path of law and order instead of massive resistance, like most of the lower South states went, was really a gutsy one and is often under-appreciated by South Carolinians and historians in general,” Edgar said.
In the book, Grose credits McNair, a Berkeley County native who was governor from 1965-71, for guiding South Carolina from its agrarian past and a discredited system of racial segregation.
McNair was under enormous pressure to improve the state’s economy and education, even as he dealt with public school desegregation and the discord that accompanied social change, Grose wrote.
He welcomed Blacks into the Democratic Party and created alliances with Black leaders.
Two years into his term, McNair had already calmed one crisis at South Carolina State University in 1967, ending a student boycott and easing out a president who ignored the civil rights movement.
“That was the trouble. It was sort of like history went backwards. He got it right in 1967 and then got it wrong in 1968,” said William C. Hine, a political science professor at South Carolina State.
McNair said he learned the need to keep lines of communications open after things spiraled out of control so quickly during the Orangeburg Massacre.
Grose thinks that lesson sank in quick as McNair dealt with striking hospital workers in Charleston a year later, and handled rising protests over statewide school integration and busing in 1970.
McNair didn’t guide South Carolina through turbulent times alone. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, the former governor and U.S. senator, had already cleared the way for the peaceful integration of Clemson and the University of South Carolina, and the late Gov. John West, who succeeded McNair, would expand opportunities for blacks.
But in his book, Grose, a former speechwriter for McNair, suggests McNair was at the heart of the transformation.
“The South Carolina that headed into the last three decades of the 20th century was one that had gone to war with its past and had not only survived but faced its future with a new sense of purpose and direction,” Grose wrote.
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