SC man's '40s stand helped pave Obama's path

cclick@thestate.comJanuary 18, 2009 

Editor's note: This story was originally published January 18, 2009

When President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office Tuesday, Lessie V. Pope won't think of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass or a host of other illustrious black Americans who helped clear Obama's path to the White House.

She'll send up a prayer for George Elmore, a courageous Columbia taxi driver, photographer and dime-store owner who challenged white political rule in 1940s-era South Carolina.

"Mr. Obama would not have been allowed to be elected had it not been for George Elmore," Pope, a retired music teacher, said.

In 1948 -- two decades before passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act -- thousands of black South Carolinians were able to cast ballots because Elmore dared to challenge the white primary system in federal court.

It was a decision that cost Elmore dearly.

He suffered economic reprisals from the white establishment, losing his livelihood, his home and his health.

His wife, Laura, suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for the remainder of her life, their children scattered to live with relatives. Elmore died a pauper in 1959 at the age of 53.

'A FREE AND UNTRAMMELED BALLOT'

Pope was just a child when Elmore, aided by the NAACP, sued in federal court in February 1947 to end the all-white Democratic primary.

Thurgood Marshall, the thunderous NAACP lawyer who went on to become a Supreme Court justice, argued the case, Elmore v. Rice, in Columbia.

At the time, the Democratic primary was the only election that mattered in the states of the Old Confederacy, and the conservative Democratic Party was determined African-Americans would have no part in it.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already outlawed the "white primary" in Texas, Georgia and other Southern states. But South Carolina, acting in emergency session in 1944, engineered a charade to remove all legal references to primaries.

U.S. District Court Judge Waties Waring would have no part of it.

He ruled in Elmore's favor in August 1947, ending the state's last-gasp attempt to portray the primary as a "private club," exempt from constitutional scrutiny and black participation.

"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."

He went on: "It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union."

It was a huge step in erasing black disenfranchisement that had commenced in 1895 under a new state constitution and Jim Crow segregation.

Elmore was ebullient, rejoicing when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision in 1948.

Recovering at home from a cold, he said the news was "better than a dose of medicine." Two years after he was rebuffed at the polls, Elmore voted in the Columbia city primary of April 1948.

THE PRICE OF COURAGE

But in the years that followed, the once-prosperous Elmore began to suffer economic reprisals.

Whites refused to stock the shelves at his Gervais Street five-and-dime or the liquor stores he ran.

The loan on his Tree Street house was called and the family forced to move.

His children recalled going for Sunday drives only to return to find a burning cross staked on the lawn by the Ku Klux Klan. His wife was eventually hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

"I think he suffered more than anybody else," said Pope, who remembered catching rides to school in the Blue Ribbon cab Elmore drove.

Elmore's four children, who eventually left South Carolina to live with an aunt in New York, have tried to keep his legacy alive.

For them, Obama's victory -- aided by the results of the South Carolina primary -- is confirmation of their father's extraordinary vision and sacrifice.

Although they live in different states, on Tuesday they will talk by phone, just as they did Nov. 4.

"We kind of wanted to remind ourselves (of his contributions) and talk about how proud Dad would have been," said Cresswell Elmore, vice president for General Dynamics Information Technology in Washington.

His sister, Vernadine Elmore Quan-Soon, will travel by train from her New York home to Washington with her husband early on inauguration day, just to be part of the historic moment.

Born in 1942, Quan-Soon has virtually no memory of the events of the 1940s and 1950s that devastated her family.

What she does remember is living with her mother's niece, Lillian Edney, in Saxon Homes following the family's eviction.

There was not enough room for George Elmore and her brother, Cresswell, so they spent nights in the family truck outside.

"I get so emotional it is hard for me to talk about it," she said.

Lillian Edney's daughter, Cynthia Edney, was a child of 4 or 5 when the Elmores came to stay in 1954 and 1955.

She remembers being excited that Vernadine and the youngest Elmore child, Yolande, would be instant "big sisters" for her. To Edney, "Uncle George" was a smiling, rotund fellow who passed her nickels for popsicles even though he was nearly broke.

"I learned later he had to go the extra mile to get that popsicle," she said. "Even when I reflect now, I never knew he had a care in the world."

She accompanied him and her great-grandfather to the mental hospital for African-Americans on Farrow Road to visit Laura Elmore, taking "what we called silver bells, or Hershey's Kisses." Laura Elmore never recovered from her mental illness and died in New York.

"I think it was extreme stress brought on by the burnings in front of her house, losing everything and more, just being afraid because of her children," Cynthia Edney said.

The family eventually moved to the Fairwold and Dutch Fork communities, until Elmore's death in 1959 from complications of diabetes.

DISTURBER OF AN 'UNJUST PEACE'

George Elmore 's life and the contributions he made to the demise of the white political structure are well known in Columbia's black community, but only in recent decades has his story reached a wider audience.

A memorial was placed near his grave in Randolph Cemetery in 1981 by the Committee of 100 Black Men, a site tended by a grandson, Ronald Elmore, who was born well after his grandfather's death.

"I just do it in memory of my grandfather," he said. "I just wish he were here to see how America has changed."

Elmore was profiled in a 2003 story in The State, and his biography featured in the 2007 South Carolina African-American Calendar. Last year, he was recognized during Historic Columbia Foundation's 2008 Jubilee Festival of Heritage as one of the Midlands' 30 most significant African-Americans.

In his 2008 book "Make It Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out," Vernon Jordan also remembered Elmore, as well as Lonnie Smith, the plaintiff in the case that struck down the white primary in Texas in 1944, and Primus King, the plaintiff in the case that struck down the white primary in Georgia in 1945. Jordan called the three men "disturbers of the unjust peace."

"From George Elmore, Primus King and Lonnie Smith to Barack Obama -- lest we forget the journey," he wrote.

Lessie Pope said she believes the city of Columbia should recognize Elmore with a George Elmore Day, a time to reflect upon his contributions to the civil rights movement and to emphasize the importance of the vote.

"I have never missed voting since 1956 because of Mr. Elmore," she said.

Pope also plans to press U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn for congressional recognition of Elmore's civil rights contributions, just as the plaintiffs in the Clarendon County school desegregation case were honored posthumously in 2004.

"He deserves it," she said.

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