The heated national rhetoric of the civil rights period hit home in Columbia in April 1963, with two very different speakers making their point to very different crowds eight days apart.
Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X swept in first, on April 17, preaching his message of black separatism before a small crowd of blacks at a Columbia mosque.
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy followed, on April 25, addressing two mostly white groups affiliated with the University of South Carolina.
In both cases, local leaders fretted about what might happen during those visits by outsiders. Many people who wanted to maintain the segregated status quo did everything they could to stop the visits.
In the end, the fears of fallout proved overblown. As was typical of South Carolina during that period, both appearances came off without any major protests or arrests.
Malcolm X mesmerized his listeners during a nearly three-hour speech: “Let the white man have his own, control his own and use his own for the benefit of his own,” he said. “We only want what we can develop and earn for ourselves without help from the white man; something we will never receive anyway.”
Kennedy gave a talk to USC law students before turning political with his push for integration in a speech to a university professors group: “It has been 100 years since the slaves were freed,” he said. “During that time in many places little progress has been made to give full liberty to the descendants of the slaves. Now time is running out fast for this country.”
Considering the mood of the times, the words were incendiary. But most of the fireworks had come before the speeches, before the speakers even arrived in town.
Township turns away Black Muslims
Columbia leaders openly plotted to stop the appearance of Malcolm X, the young firebrand of the Nation of Islam, an organization they viewed as an extremist hate group.
When word slipped out that a local Nation of Islam leader had rented the Township Auditorium for Malcolm X’s visit, the county legislative delegation forced the manager of the county-owned venue to back out of the contract (which included cash for 10 extra police officers to ensure safety). When organizers moved the event to a Masonic lodge in West Columbia, local African-American church leaders prompted that venue to turn away the Nation of Islam group, too.
State Rep. Heath Manning noted that “reputable Negro leaders in the community are just as much opposed” to the Malcolm X meeting as white leaders. The Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, head of the local NAACP, praised Black Muslims for their stress of good, moral behavior, but he said he didn’t approve of their anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic attitude. J. A. Bacoats, Benedict College president, said the Nation of Islam group should be allowed to gather and hear Malcolm X under the Constitution’s freedom of speech clause, but “I am dubious and very hesitant to endorse or give cooperation to any extremist group.”
Malcolm X ended up speaking April 17 to about 70 people crammed into a small mosque called Muhammad’s Temple of Islam on Waverly Street. (The building no longer stands.) He came and went without any problems. Law enforcement officers, including SLED director Pete Strom, watched his group from a respectable distance.
Columbia educator King B.L. Jeffcoat, then working on his master’s degree at Atlanta University, heard about the planned Columbia speech from one of his professors, Lonnie Cross. He decided he wanted to hear what the man receiving so much attention had to say.
Two things stand out in Jeffcoat’s memory: How difficult it was to find the speech location as it was moved several times, and the fire-and-brimstone nature of Malcolm X’s speech delivery. At age 82 now, Jeffcoat doesn’t remember details of the speech’s content.
Jeffcoat was allowed into the mosque because of his connection to Cross, who was prominent in the Nation of Islam and went by the name Abdulalim A. Shabazz. Since he wasn’t a Black Muslim, Jeffcoat was a bit of an outsider in the crowd, but he wasn’t fearful to attend.
“The idea of the secrecy (of the location) was a little disturbing,” Jeffcoat said. “I remember everybody dressed in white, and he had these security guards so you knew you didn’t want to bother him.”
When he mentions to friends now that he was at that speech, they often regret that they missed the chance to hear Malcolm X.
An Associated Press article on the visit, written by Kent Krell, noted that patrol cars circled the block during the nearly three-hour speech. He branded integration as a trick foisted on Southern blacks by “foxy liberal Northern whites,” according to Krell’s story.
Malcolm X told The State reporter Sam McCuen, who met him at the airport and talked with him several times during the multi-day visit, that he understood why the contract for the Township had been voided.
“We never try to force ourselves on anyone or into any place where we are not wanted,” he said. “The hall belongs to the county, and the delegations had every right to cancel.”
McCuen, who covered many of the top civil rights stories of that era and now runs a public-relations firm in Lexington, said that remains one of the most extraordinary days of his life. “I was so young and stupid, he probably didn’t figure I was very harmful,” McCuen said.
The small mosque was packed. The few other reporters there left quickly after the speech to make their deadlines.
Then, “I was the only white guy in the building,” McCuen said. And by the end of the speech, “he had me convinced I was a blue-eyed devil. He was an incredible orator.”
Krell, who retired as associate editorial page editor at The State, also recalled Malcolm X as a mesmerizing speaker. “He spoke without notes, and it was riveting,” Krell said. “At times he sounded like a Shakespearean actor and in the end he used more of the patois of the blacks.”
McCuen spoke briefly with Malcolm X after the speech. As the young reporter prepared to leave, the Black Muslim leader reached out his hand and asked for McCuen’s car keys. He motioned to several large assistants and said: “This is Mr. McCuen. He’s a friend of mine. Check his car and make sure there’s nothing in the back seat and the tires aren’t slashed, and watch until you see his tail lights disappear and report back to me.”
Kennedy faced different sort of opposition
Local leaders were nearly as outspoken in their disdain for Kennedy, who had been at the lead of federal efforts to integrate Southern universities at the behest of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
State Rep. A.W. “Red” Bethea, a segregationist from Dillon, said he welcomed the attorney general but wondered why he was meeting only with USC law students and professors. “For God’s sake, let him take time out to talk to some South Carolinians with some common sense,” Bethea said.
A few people wrote letters to the editor to protest Kennedy’s planned April 25 visit — one by Henry Horton said Kennedy would be “intruding where he is not wanted” — but most local leaders tried to scuttle the plans behind the scenes. Kennedy was invited by the USC chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the law students, who moved up their May 1 Law Day event to welcome the nation’s 37-year-old attorney general.
Bob Foster, a member of the law school faculty then, recalled law school dean Robert Figg showing him a stack of angry letters from lawyers throughout the state.
“The mood was unbelievable,” Foster said recently. “Inviting the top legal official in the country to speak at a law school was being condemned.”
One letter writer, a prominent attorney, accused Figg of deserting his birthright and closed by saying: “You can tell a person’s character by the company he keeps.”
Figg showed Foster his response, which used a different pithy quote: “Never explain yourself; your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.”
USC’s trustees made it clear they hadn’t invited Kennedy, according to an editorial in The State. They indicated they had little influence on the decisions by the professors’ organization or the law school students. USC also pointed out that only about a third of its professors were members of the group that invited Kennedy.
Earlier on the day of his visit to Columbia, Kennedy had been in Alabama, where he was greeted by segregationist protesters. Eighteen of the protesters were arrested, and Gov. George Wallace showed his sympathy for the protesters by raising a Confederate battle flag over the Alabama Capitol.
In contrast, Kennedy was greeted at Columbia Metropolitan Airport by about 100 supporters, many of them Benedict College students. The USC law students later gave him a standing ovation after he spoke of the importance of their planned profession.
The newspaper coverage from that day doesn’t mention protesters against Kennedy. The Benedict students at the airport held up signs saying: “Welcome to S.C. Land of Segregation and Discrimination” and “Let There Be Justice for All Sides.”
Kennedy stopped by Gov. Donald Russell’s office for what both called a “courtesy” visit that lasted 24 minutes. Russell said they didn’t discuss integration, but the governor previously had made it clear South Carolina didn’t want federal troops at Clemson (which already had integrated) or USC (which would soon).
After speaking to the law students, Kennedy turned overtly political in his presentation to the professors at the Jefferson Hotel.
“We must recognize, as responsible citizens and as responsible government officials, that the Negroes in this country cannot be expected indefinitely to tolerate the injustices which flow from official and private racial discrimination in the United States,” he said.
“The troubles we see now, agitation and even bloodshed, will not compare to what we will see a decade from now unless real progress is made.”
Between his two speeches, Kennedy relaxed at the home of local attorney Terrell Glenn, and he slept that night at the Glenns’ home.
Lyles Glenn, now an attorney in Columbia, was a child then. He recalls that he and his brother met Kennedy at the door of their house and later were hustled off to their grandparents for the night. The family since then has referred to the bed where Kennedy slept as “the Kennedy bed.”
Within six years of their Columbia speeches, both Malcolm X and Kennedy were dead.
Malcolm X, who had broken with the Nation of Islam by then, was shot during a disturbance at a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 1965. Kennedy, then a New York senator and presidential candidate, was assassinated June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as he addressed supporters after winning the California Democratic primary.
Their visits to Columbia in April 1963, while mere footnotes in their life stories, marked important moments in the civil rights efforts in South Carolina, in part because they came off without the protests and violence that occurred in other locales.