Frank Washington remembers the scorn he endured from white, and even some black, Columbians in the 1970s as he led an NAACP legal battle to alter the way city council members were elected.
There were suggestions that the change from at-large to single-member districts – which ensured the election in 1983 of Columbia’s first black council members – “was just for the benefit of the black community,” Washington told a lunch gathering Thursday. “We know now it was for the benefit of Columbia.
“I guess I was well-hated by black people and white people,” said Washington, a retired educator and longtime Columbia NAACP president, who was honored at a luncheon along with other civil rights activists by the Columbia SC 63 organization led by Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Rebuffed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, Washington worked with the late Mayor Kirkman Finlay to initiate a referendum that led to the 4-2-1 plan of election that still stands today. In that plan, four seats were single-member, two at-large and the mayor also was elected at-large.
Washington and Benjamin said that moment was transformative for a city still mired in its past and dominated by a white power structure. At the lunch, Benjamin recognized Luther Battiste, who was elected in 1983 along with E.W. Cromartie as the city’s first black council members.
There were other stories that were shared Thursday, some known and others more obscure, as Benjamin and USC history professor Bobby Donaldson recognized those who had waged the battle to end segregation and improved the lives of black South Carolinians.
Ronald Elmore accepted a key to the city on behalf of his late grandfather George Elmore, who lent his name to a critical NAACP lawsuit in 1946 that outlawed the white primary. Elmore’s victory was pivotal in the battle for the ballot in the South, but he suffered severe business and personal losses because of his sacrifice.
Family Court Judge Michelle Hurley-Johnson accepted the key on behalf of her parents, longtime funeral home operators Anthony and Alice Hurley, who founded the Columbia Urban League. Alice Hurley also was a social worker.
Hurley-Johnson recalled how Malcolm X came to her father in 1963 asking to use the funeral chapel to make a speech in the city. The fiery Nation of Islam leader had been turned away at the Township Auditorium when white leaders learned of his appearance. Anthony Hurley was willing to accommodate him – except that his Columbia clients came first.
“And my father told him he really wished he could but he had a wake,” she said, and then her father added, “he could come back tomorrow.” Malcolm X made the speech in a small mosque on Waverly Street that no longer stands.
Beyond the formal recognitions, Thursday’s event offered up a time for stories to be shared among those who had participated in sit-ins and demonstrations in Columbia and beyond. As Donaldson noted, “Columbia is a very small town.”
“As we pause today to recognize this community you realize the few degrees of separation there are,” he said.
That was true at one table where Eli Richardson, a retired postal worker, recounted his days of working in the NAACP and registering black voters in 1968. He was simply a foot soldier, Richardson said modestly, although across the table Gene Washington begged to disagree.
Washington, a filmmaker who is also retired from the Columbia post office, recalled how Richardson pestered him as a young man in 1977 to join the civil rights organization.
“I was literally dodging him for weeks on end, and he finally cornered me one day and said I really want you to join,” Gene Washington said. But Richardson sought more than the $5 membership fee.
“He said, ‘I see something in you. I want more than the membership; I want you to be active. Will you agree to be active?’”
Washington shook his hand and two days later attended his first Columbia NAACP meeting where he met Frank Washington, then the organization’s president. They all remain active to this day.