When state Sen. John Matthews first became a member of the S.C. House of Representatives in 1975, segregation still was rampant.
“Back then, it was racism in your face,” said Matthews, D-Orangeburg. “But there was a willingness to deal with legislation that could help African-Americans and the poor in this state.
“People wanted to change things.”
Thirty-seven years later, Matthews — the longest-serving African-American lawmaker in the state — says that willingness to change is eroding.
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“Most statutory impediments that hurt African-Americans are gone,” said Matthews, a retired school principal. “But you find that, in the past four or five years, Republicans have begun to introduce new impediments to limit people.”
A GOP-backed law to require voters to present a photo ID at the polls is weighing heavy on the minds of black lawmakers this month, which is Black History Month.
That law is being challenged in court. But another Republican-backed bill — to require groups that conduct voter-registration drives to register with the state Elections Commission — is working its way through the State House now.
Backers say the measures will protect the state’s voting process from fraud, citing a claim, disputed by election officials, that more than 950 dead people cast votes in recent elections.
Matthews and others, however, see the measures as unnecessary overkill.
Voter fraud is a non-issue in South Carolina, says state Sen. John Land, the Clarendon Democrat and Senate minority leader who, like Matthews, was elected to the House in 1975. “It is simply a wedge issue that the national Republicans created.”
But, Matthews says, the Republican legislative majority has no reason to care about what most of the state’s African-American voters think.
Redistricting — the redrawing of legislative districts that happens every 10 years — increasingly has resulted in majority-black districts, controlled by Democrats, and majority-white districts, controlled by Republicans, who control the S.C. House and Senate without ever winning any black votes, Matthews says. “We have insulated white Republicans from any black political influence so they’re not paying black South Carolina any attention because there is no consequence.”
Republican disagree, pointing to U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, an African-American Republican from Charleston, and Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s first non-white governor, as proof the GOP is increasingly diverse. They also say their legislative priorities — lowering taxes and bringing jobs to South Carolina — help all residents, regardless of color.
Matthews is unconvinced. But he says he’ll keep fighting.
He plans to roll out a bill that would give school districts more flexibility to experiment with different models, including extended hours for students and year-round schools.
He also is looking for a way to pass a bill, vetoed by Haley last year, to encourage economic development in the impoverished counties along the Interstate 95 corridor.
“The governor said it was growing government,” Matthew said. “To me, either that or grow poverty.”