One man's sacrifice ends white voting 'clubs'

cclick@thestate.comMarch 3, 2003 

This story originally was published March 3, 2003.

He is, to most South Carolinians, a man lost to history.

But George A. Elmore's 1946 legal challenge to the all-white Democratic primary resonates more than a half-century later.

His action ended one of the most egregious charades - the transformation of primaries into private "clubs" - devised by Southern politicians to deny blacks the right to vote guaranteed them decades earlier.

What prompted Elmore, a Columbia businessman who owned a five-and-dime and two liquor stores and moonlighted as a taxi driver and photographer, to risk his livelihood to challenge a system that had elected every governor, State House representative and congressman since 1900 remains unclear.

His youngest daughter, Yolande Cole, remembers a boldness to him, a quiet courage that would cost him dearly.

What is known is this: In 1946, Elmore, of Richland County, attempted to vote in the August Democratic primary and was denied the ballot. The primary, held to determine candidates for the general election, was the only contest that counted in South Carolina under one-party Democratic rule. Blacks, through a variety of ruses, were almost totally excluded.

On Feb. 21, 1947, Elmore challenged the white primary in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP on his behalf.

Five months later, on July 12, 1947, U.S. District Judge Waties Waring ruled in Elmore's favor.

No longer could South Carolina Democrats claim the state's primaries were private clubs, immune from the reach of the 15th Amendment and other constitutional mandates.

For his trouble, Elmore, who ran the Waverly Five-and-Dime store on Gervais Street and two liquor stores, endured economic reprisals by white vendors that eventually led to his financial ruin.

Crosses were burned on his lawn; his life was threatened. His wife, Laura, suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. In 1959, 13 years after the case, he died at age 53, a broken man.

His relatives, and a handful of contemporaries, remember him vividly and treasure his sacrifice.

"Every time I think of integration, I think of George Elmore ," said Fannie Phelps Adams, a retired 85-year-old teacher and administrator in Columbia. "He was treated as bad as possibly could be, so much so that he died a pauper."

Donella Wilson lived around the corner from the five-and-dime and shopped there often.

"After he got the vote, (vendors) wouldn't sell him anything," recalled Wilson, 93. "He did all he could to make it. He just deteriorated. His wife deteriorated."

Ronald Elmore , born the year his grandfather died, grew up hearing the stories of George Elmore 's struggle.

"I just know what my mother and my grandmother told me," said Ronald Elmore , 43, who owns a Columbia auto repair shop. "They told me he was boycotted. People stopped giving him goods on time."

Ronald Elmore never read about his grandfather in any South Carolina school book and never spoke of his grandfather's sacrifice.

"No one would have believed me," he said.

Today, historians mainly know Elmore as a name on a famous legal case, Elmore v. Rice, said James Farmer, a University of South Carolina-Aiken political scientist and authority on South Carolina voting rights.

"The fact that he was dead before the golden age of the civil rights movement - when people were looking back to the pioneers - may explain it as much as anything."

EXPLAINING CIVIL RIGHTS

Farmer will be among dozens of scholars who will gather this week at The Citadel to discuss issues from voting rights to public school desegregation and lynchings. The four-day conference, which opens Wednesday, is the most ambitious undertaking in modern times aimed at explaining the South Carolina civil rights movement.

Farmer, who has researched the history of South Carolina's white primary, describes an unfolding drama of twists and turns, played out in the courts and communities amid tension over white political domination.

The frustration that led to Elmore's stand was palpable among his own parishioners, recalled the Rev. Roscoe Wilson, retired pastor of St. John's Baptist Church in Columbia.

"They were very much concerned about it," Wilson said. "They talk about how we were Americans, we had fought in the wars and all that and still we were not able to vote.

"The very fact that we couldn't vote was one of the ways that we were given an inferiority complex. That did something as far as your self-esteem. It was a way to keep us down."

Marjorie Amos-Frazier of Charleston remembers helping fellow blacks become familiar with the U.S. Constitution to navigate the literacy tests that blacks had to pass before voting in the late 1940s.

"We stuck with that thing night after night," said Amos-Frazier, who went on to become the first black woman elected to the Charleston County Council. If people could not read, she said, they would memorize.

She remembered one resident of John's Island who told her, 'I can't read but if you say it to me long enough, I'll remember.' "

"They were anxious, especially the people on the islands," she said. "They felt it was their right. If it was good for one part of the population, then they wanted that right."

While some election officials, particularly in the Upstate, were registering blacks according to law, others would deploy an array of stalling tactics.

"If they found they could trip somebody, they would make them read more," said Amos-Frazier.

'INHERENT RIGHT OF MAN'

From the 1895 state constitutional convention to the institution of the white primaries and loyalty oaths, the white power structure did all it could overtly, and covertly, to circumvent African-American voting rights.

The brightest beacon of hope came in the 1868 state constitution, which offered a tangible sense of democracy to newly freed slaves.

"It had a lot of earmarks of our national constitution," said James L. Underwood, a University of South Carolina law professor and expert on the South Carolina constitutional process. "It had a better delineation of separation of powers."

But because it was crafted by a majority of black delegates and non-native whites - many whites who had participated in the Civil War were ineligible to vote - it was doomed to destruction.

The document eliminated most barriers to voting. There were no mandatory poll taxes or literacy tests, devices that would be employed liberally in coming decades. There was even a call for female suffrage, although that was turned aside.

The delegates to the convention - Republican and majority black - argued eloquently over the merits of a literacy test, and the fairness of imposing it upon a race that had been denied education for so long.

"I look upon suffrage as the inherent right of man," Delegate R.C. DeLarge argued. "When God creates man in his own image, I believe that he also put upon him the stamp of equality, and with equality ensured him all the rights which we claim as citizens. I do not think the Almighty ever intended to prescribe any rights or liberties which all men were not entitled to enjoy."

The poll tax, seen by some as a means of financing education for newly franchised blacks and poor whites, also came under intense scrutiny. It remained in the document as a means of financing public schools, but nonpayment could not be used as an excuse to deprive a man of his vote.

"The most lasting legacy was the beginning of the educational system," Underwood said. "That part of it survived."

Passage of the 1868 constitution was a watershed event in the state's history, allowing the entrance of blacks into government positions hardly dreamed of a decade earlier.

By 1870, 12 of the 32 members of the South Carolina Senate were black; 75 of 124 House members were black.

But the festering resentments toward Reconstruction, corruption and growing black political influence erupted throughout the 1870s in Ku Klux Klan raids on voting places and other acts of violence.

R.B. Randolph, a black lawmaker, was killed while campaigning at Hodges Station in Abbeville County on Oct. 16, 1868. He is buried in Columbia's Randolph Cemetery, his epitaph bearing these words: "Killed by assassins."

CONSTITUTIONAL TAG

In the years following the 1876 election of Wade Hampton and the end of Reconstruction, more strictures were placed upon voting, including adoption of the Eight Box Rule, which required voters to cast ballots separately for various offices and ensure their ballot was placed in the correct box. No one was allowed to help the illiterate voter.

Gerrymandering was used to limit black influence in congressional elections.

With the ascension of Gov. Ben Tillman, who spoke against civil rights for blacks, the constitutional convention of 1895 dismantled any progress blacks had previously gained.

For the next half-century, statutes regarding literacy tests, property ownership and party membership would be used to disenfranchise blacks.

In the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court began what professor Underwood describes as a "game of constitutional tag with Southern states," striking down the labyrinthine provisions for white primaries.

South Carolina was among the last holdouts. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case, Smith v. Allwight, that primaries were part and parcel of the electoral process.

"After Smith, most Southern states just caved in and said we are going to have to throw in the towel and let blacks register," Farmer, the USC-Aiken political scientist, said. "But South Carolina and Georgia did not."

Incensed by the Smith ruling, South Carolina lawmakers rallied to Gov. Olin Johnston's call for an emergency session of the legislature in April 1944. In six short days, they wiped out all statutes related to primaries from the law books, turning the primary into a private apparatus.

Enter George Elmore , a light-skinned man (his birth father was Jewish although he carried the surname of his stepfather) who had passed for white in earlier elections. He had voted, apparently without trouble, until 1946, recalled his granddaughter, Vanessa Elmore-Michaels of Columbia. After he was turned back in the 1946 primary, he agreed to become the test case for the NAACP.

In his written decision, Judge Waring found that the "private club" apparatus Democrats had installed in 1944 to thwart Elmore and other blacks still served the same purpose: election of public officials. The sleight-of-hand did not obscure the fact that blacks, because they could not gain admittance to the white club, were being denied the right to vote.

"All citizens of this State and Country are entitled to cast a free and untrammeled ballot in our elections," Waring wrote, "and if the only material and realistic elections are clothed with the name 'primary,' they are equally entitled to vote there."

Waring, who was ostracized for his liberal views on race, nevertheless admonished state officials to end the voting charade.

"It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union. It is time to fall in step with the other states and to adopt the American way of conducting elections."

Yet the white power structure pressed on its doomed course, next devising an elaborate loyalty oath - an oath that required voters to pledge opposition to communism and integration - that few blacks would be willing to endorse. That, too, was overturned by Waring.

"He was our salvation," Amos-Frazier said of Waring, whom Strom Thurmond once labeled the "turncoat judge."

"Some people are born with the right spirit," Amos-Frazier said, "and he was one of them."

CONCEDING THE RIGHT TO VOTE

The Elmore case was decided just three years after Gov. Johnston had declared white supremacy would be maintained, and "let the chips fall where they may."

Following the decision, "there was a real outpouring of registration," said Farmer, the USC political scientist. By 1950, about 50,000 blacks had registered to vote.

But that early explosion of activity did not last.

"That's the sad part of the story," Farmer said. "That number just plateaus. Only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 does it ratchet up."

Even after the demise of the white primary, blacks had to overcome other barriers to registration and the dilution of their votes, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU's Voter Education Project. Another wave of court cases would ensue in the 1950s and 1960s challenging at-large elections. Black candidates wouldn't appear on the ballot until the 1960s.

The legacy of slavery and white domination was not so easy to erase, even though Farmer said many South Carolinians were willing to concede blacks should have the right to vote.

"You can document this geographically," said Farmer. "In the far upper Piedmont of the state where white attitudes are less hostile - Pickens, Laurens, Spartanburg - those county leaders decided to let blacks register.

"The political leadership was still living in the past. It's the old story, the fear of being what they called 'out-niggered'- if I am not adamant about maintaining the status quo, then I might get defeated."

"I don't know how much those guys believed it themselves," he said. "I call it the Tillman legacy. The shadow was still there."

COURAGE AND SACRIFICE

Whether Elmore took some small satisfaction in helping to erase that long shadow of racism is not known.

He left no record of his memories about his role in one of the pivotal cases of 20th century South Carolina.

His daughter, Yolande Cole, said her father never expressed any regrets about his role in the case, even though it cost him everything.

"No, never," said Cole, who was 7 when her mother was hospitalized and 13 when her father died. "I never felt or heard him have a regret. I believe he was visionary."

But Cole, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., said she knows his early death was triggered by the backlash from the case.

"He was worn out because he didn't have any money," said Cole, who left South Carolina shortly after his death to live with relatives in New York. "He had diabetes and stopped taking his insulin." He died on Feb. 25, 1959.

As a young man just returned from service in World War II, U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry witnessed the Elmore trial.

Perry, who went on to become South Carolina's first black federal judge, listened to Elmore testify those many years ago. But he, too, can only guess what spurred Elmore to challenge his exclusion from the primary.

"It's difficult to say what motivated him," said Perry, "but I can say in general terms the entire black community was offended by the fact that we were not permitted to vote and to engage in the only meaningful process at that time."

The right to vote is sacred to Elmore's family, the history of the struggle now passed down to Elmore's great-grandchildren.

Granddaughter Vanessa Elmore-Michaels says she always rises early on election day to vote, mindful of her grandfather's personal and professional sacrifice.

"It is so important to me because I know what he went through trying to get us the vote," she said.

In 1981, a citizens group, the Committee of 100 Black Men, unveiled South Carolina's only monument to Elmore.

It lies just inside Randolph Cemetery, where the bodies of nine black Reconstruction-era lawmakers are also buried.

It reads:

"Sacred to the memory of George Elmore , who through unmatched courage, perseverance and personal sacrifice, brought the legal action by which black people may participate in South Carolina Democratic Party primary elections -'Elmore vs. Rice,' 1947."

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