The recent passing of former United States Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings marks the end of an era for South Carolina and the nation.
Much has been said about and many accolades given for all Hollings accomplished for this state. Despite being a poor, deep South state, there’s a reason South Carolinians can say “thank God for Mississippi” or “thank God for Alabama” and that reason is Fritz Hollings. The World War Two hero, state legislator, Lt. governor, governor and U.S. senator is the Palmetto state’s finest creation.
A fierce progressive for his day, Hollings ushered in the state’s technical college system, which has enabled countless numbers of state residents to qualify for good jobs and encouraged new business creation throughout the Palmetto State. Hollings led the charge against hunger, which was a crippling problem for many state residents, especially African Americans still being victimized by Jim Crow laws. He helped start the WIC program, saving thousands of children from starvation and malnutrition.
While other Southern governors were literally blocking schoolhouse doors to keep Africa-American students out, Hollings was standing up to the state’s tradition of segregation. Addressing the legislature in 1963, Hollings proclaimed “this General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men. As determined as we are, we of today must realize the lesson of 100 years ago and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States. It [integration] must be done with law and order."
Separating himself and his state from the likes of George Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi, Hollings insisted on following the rule of law and allowed Harvey Gantt to integrate peacefully Clemson University. Hollings said that Clemson would not only be integrated, but integrated with dignity. Decades later Hollings recalled, “we weren’t going to have any of that nonsense they had in Oxford, Mississippi and other college campuses.” Hollings helped set the tone for the Civil Rights movement in the state. Ugly occurrences did happen here, such as in Orangeburg, but S.C. experienced far less violence than other states in the region because of Hollings.
Long before it was hip, Hollings was a champion in the field of coastal conservation. Hollings played a major role in the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He was a major force behind the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Oceans Dumping Act and the Sustainable Fisheries Act. There’s good reason the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge in Hollywood bears his name. For the thousands of sportsmen and conservationists who read this paper, you can thank Hollings for being one of the leading forces in the federal government to preserve thousands of pristine acres in the ACE Basin and elsewhere.
In the 1970s and 80s, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was rebuilding his city from the ruins of The War, fire and earthquake to make Charleston the city it is today. Riley had no stronger ally in Congress than his mentor, Fritz Hollings. Hollings was instrumental in securing funding for the projects that initiated the city’s current renaissance.
Progressive on social issues, Hollings was just as conservative when it came to fiscal policy. A deficit hawk, Hollings co-authored the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Act, which sought to reduce the federal deficit and balance the budget.
All these accomplishments were on my mind as I attended his funeral at The Citadel. Anyone who spent any time with him will never forget his sharp wit and biting sarcasm. He gave me an honor I’ll never forget when he showed up to my 24th birthday party — only to loudly and gleefully make light of my weight gain and (repeatedly) ask my smaller brother if I was stealing his food. These sorts of Hollings stories are legendary and plentiful. Yet what I thought most about that morning was how much Hollings represented the brand of politics I was originally attracted to and wanted to make my life’s work and how much things have bleakly changed.
Hollings represented a different era in politics. A time that Democrats could be conservative and Republicans could be liberal. A time when partisan politics weren’t dominant and usually ended at the day’s end. Hollings and Strom Thurmond weren’t close. Hollings didn’t think much of Thurmond’s lack of courage on issues like Civil Rights. Yet they respected each other and worked together for our state. They considered themselves South Carolinians before Democrats or Republicans and didn’t consider partisan labels when it came to helping constituents and local elected officials.
Hollings risked his political career to integrate Clemson peacefully, but nobody could ever accuse him of being politically correct. He said what he meant and meant what he said. If he presented something as a fact, it was indeed a fact.
Our politics today is a caustic, partisanship at all cost, party over country, facts be damned dumpster fire. Nobody cares about balancing the budget. If the president is lawless, that’s just fine — as long as he’s in your particular party. Hollings represented a different time, a better time.
Hollings did not want structures named after him and didn’t crave attention. His perceived arrogance was more of a shtick than anything. He was a public servant and that’s how he saw himself.
South Carolina is a far better place because of Fritz Hollings and thank God for that.
Thank God for Fritz Hollings.
Lachlan McIntosh is a political consultant based in Charleston. He consults for Democratic and independent candidates throughout the United States. He is a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party and aid to Governor Jim Hodges. www.mcintoshconsultingllc.com.