Columbia man was ‘quietly powerful’ advocate for civil rights

cclick@thestate.comMay 10, 2013 

  • 50 years later: Sharing Columbia’s civil rights story

    Columbia is one of seven Southern cities commemorating the pivotal year of 1963, when segregation’s barriers finally began to fall. The year-long initiative will include symposiums, photo exhibits, establishment of permanent historic markers and tours of civil rights sites.

    Throughout 2013, The State newspaper will share stories of people, sites and events in Columbia’s civil rights story as part of a monthly series.

The late Rev. C.J. Whitaker was a “political powerhouse” in the African-American community of the 1950s and 1960s, establishing an influential presence through his church and civic work, especially with the Richland County Democratic Party and the North Columbia Civic Club, which he founded.

That little is known today about Whitaker’s work in the Greenview community, a north Columbia neighborhood that birthed political activism and activists, is an oversight of history, part of the lost story of Columbia in the civil rights era.

But that omission was corrected Friday night, when those who remember Whitaker gathered at Greenview Park Community Center to talk about his legacy. The forum was part of the “Columbia SC 63” initiative, which focuses on the civil rights gains of 1963.

“It probably had something to do with the person he was,” said his daughter, Donna Whitaker Rogers, a media consultant and former journalist for The State and other newspapers. “He was not the kind of person who went around tooting his own horn. What happened is that he got lost in events.”

In addition to his daughter, former state Sen. Kay Patterson, former Rep. Joe Brown and former Rep. James Felder, head of the S.C. Voter Education Project and one of the first African-Americans elected to the S.C. House, will speak at the 6 p.m. forum.

I.S. Leevy Johnson Wednesday remembered Whitaker, who died in 1986, as a tireless advocate who routinely championed his North Columbia neighbors and those in his Baptist congregations.

“He was quietly powerful,” said Johnson, a funeral home owner who also broke racial barriers when he was elected to the State House in 1970. “He was not very boisterous. He lived an exemplary life. He was a hard worker and he was really committed to improving the quality of life for everyone.”

Johnson said Whitaker and his contemporaries, including Johnson’s grandfather, I.S. Leevy, and civil rights activist Modjeska Simkins, “built the foundation for Jim Felder and me to get elected. We just happened to come along at a time that we could finish the building.”

A story published in The Columbia Record on July 26, 1984, recognized Whitaker for 40 years of public service. In that article, Whitaker recounted the obstacles that blacks faced as they tried to vote and gain other civil rights that had been denied since the 1890s.

“People don’t know what we went through,” he said. “When we went to vote, we had to read the Constitution. We had to go to the courthouse to vote then. Sometimes, we would have people lined up two and three blocks long, and they would only let 15 or 20 in a day.”

Whitaker, born in 1924, fought alongside such activists as Simkins, attorneys Lincoln Jenkins and Matthew Perry and George Elmore, who successfully fought the institution of the whites-only Democratic primary. Elmore was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and lost his business and home.

During that 1940s era “the KKK was raging then and people were scared,” Whitaker said. “They thought the whites would burn the church down.”

Times changed and Whitaker went on pushing for city services to north Columbia, an advocacy that flourished with the 1963 founding of the North Columbia Civic Club.

He became vice-chairman of the Richland County Democratic Party in 1968 and rose to become chairman in 1972.

His daughter never gave much thought to her father’s historic contributions as she was growing up. But she now realizes that her Greenview community “was a microcosm of things that were happening all over the United States.”

“These were people who had determination in their minds and they were going to make a better place for their families,” she said. “I found out that my father was one of the main contributors to that but I didn’t find that out until I was an adult.”

“His main motivation was to be a servant so when he was serving, he served. He didn’t try to alert anybody.”

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