Harvey Gantt had local support when he integrated Clemson University 50 years ago.
“When I got to the door of the dining room, there was, I was greeted by an African-American,” Gantt says in “The Education of Harvey Gantt,” ETV’s documentary film that premieres tonight. “And he was just very gracious.”
All the cafeteria workers serving the students were black, Gantt recalls of his first visit to the campus dining hall in January 1963.
“And you could see it on their faces, this was a new thing,” he says to the camera, the memory nudging a smile to his face. “They’d been on the other side of that line, and here was somebody that looked like them that was a student. And they probably saw their own children would one day walk through that line and be served as a student.
“And that was huge.”
“The Education of Harvey Gantt,” a 30-minute film narrated by Phylicia Rashad, details Gantt’s legal struggles to gain admission into what was then known as Clemson College. The film also subtlety engages the viewer in the changing cultural politics of the early ’60s, including the reaction of blacks to historic events, according to Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor in USC’s history department.
For the black community, Gantt’s admission was like the brick that forced the segregation wall to crumble in the state.
“They knew that if Harvey Gantt got into Clemson, then it’s over,” Donaldson, who appears in the documentary, said in an interview. “Everything is downhill. Once Clemson’s doors open, then it became a matter of time.”
The state of South Carolina vehemently opposed integration, subscribing to a campaign to salvage Jim Crow laws that began in Virginia known as Massive Resistance. However, Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the United States Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, included Briggs v. Elliott, a case that challenged segregation in Clarendon County years earlier.
“South Carolina masterfully used the law to deny integration ... by using the very law that ended segregation to delay integration,” said Orville Vernon Burton, a Clemson University history professor.
After viewing the documentary at ETV’s offices last month, Burton, who provides commentary in the film, said that Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, the state’s former governor and U.S. senator, was “let off easy.” Hollings, like Clemson University officials and prominent state lawmakers, had opposed integration, but by his final address to the Legislature as governor weeks before Gantt set foot on Clemson’s campus, he had changed his stance, saying the state was “running out of courts.”
“It could’ve gone the other way,” Burton said in a follow-up interview. “It’s good that people change. I do think you have to give some credit at some point that people went with the verdict.”
Gantt enrolled at Clemson without the violence and bloodshed that marred the entrance of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962.
“Many people thought it was going to be worse. South Carolina had a reputation of extremism,” Burton said. “There was good publicity about how it went. It encouraged people to be more moderate.”
The legal pursuit that ended with Gantt enrolling at Clemson, what Donaldson refers to as part of the legal dismantling of segregation, was led by Matthew Perry, an NAACP and civil rights lawyer. Perry went on the become the South’s first black federal judge.
Betsy Newman, who wrote, produced, directed and edited the documentary, which includes grainy re-enactment scenes shot on Super 8 film, said working on it was educational.
“It was really an education in the importance of the NAACP in South Carolina civil rights history,” she said. “That, of course, goes much farther back than Harvey’s story.”
Gantt, a bright and handsome Charleston native, wanted to study architecture, but no black schools in the state offered the major. He first enrolled at Iowa State University before setting his sights on Clemson.
Gantt was involved in civil disobedient activism as a teen. He was arrested along with more than 20 of his Burke High School classmates after a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at S.H. Kress five and dime in Charleston. Perry defended the case.
Donaldson said it wasn’t by accident that Gantt, whose father was active in the NAACP, received the backing of the organization’s best attorneys, including Constance Baker Motley.
“He was a poster child in 1963,” Donaldson continued, pointing out that in pictures and video Gantt was always freshly groomed and well dressed. “What better guy to get than somebody who spent time in Iowa? This whole thing with him co-habiting with white students... Iowa is as far away from Clemson as Charleston is.”
The film shows video of a 20-year-old Gantt with a confident sway as he passes through a scrum of reporters on his way to the registrar’s office.
In May 1965, Gantt received his undergraduate degree with honors. He went on to obtain an advanced degree at MIT and founded, with Jeff Huberman, the Charlotte firm of Gantt Huberman Architects.
At Clemson, he met his future wife, Lucinda Brawley, who became the first black woman to enroll there. Gantt was elected mayor of Charlotte in 1983, and he ran twice unsuccessfully for North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms’ U.S. Senate seat.