For nearly 18 years before his 1992 election to Congress, Jim Clyburn was the commissioner of the S.C. Human Affairs Commission, where he arbitrated four incendiary racial controversies, including a killing in Chester, an incident at The Citadel and the fight over the Confederate flag at the State House. The fourth? A football confrontation in Conway, which engendered bitter feelings. After the Human Affairs Commission’s decision, “One person told me I was a disgrace to my race,” Clyburn said in an interview with The State newspaper. “But I operate on facts.”
Three years after The Citadel controversy, we encountered probably the toughest racial conflict of all my years at the commission. It involved a white high school football coach and a black quarterback at football-happy Conway High School.
The dispute was absolutely incendiary.
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It began in April 1989 with the decision by Coach Chuck Jordan during spring drills that his starting quarterback from the previous season, a black rising senior named Carlos Hunt, would be replaced as quarterback by Mickey Wilson, the son of a white assistant coach who had played sparingly the year before. Hunt would be moved to defensive back at least partially, as it was explained, because college scouts were more likely to offer him a scholarship at that position.
The decision was fraught with enormous racial implications that went far beyond the football field, and for months the entire Conway community was rocked with protests, demonstrations and boycotts.
On Sept 1, 1989, more than four months after the dispute had arisen, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell asked the Human Affairs Commission to investigate the matter. He had become sufficiently concerned about the potential danger not only to those directly involved in the controversy but to the state as a whole.
While decisions about football players and the positions they were assigned on the team did not normally fall under the purview of Human Affairs Commission, we were charged by law with “fostering mutual understanding” among the people of the state. That meant wading into the middle of a racial dispute in which there wasn’t much “mutual understanding” existing at the time.
By the time we arrived in Conway, all but five of the team’s 36 black players had gone “on strike.” The Rev. H.H. Singleton, the Conway NAACP president, who coordinated the strike, had been fired from his teaching job at Conway Middle School, and prospects for elevated tension as the school year got under way were palpable.
The uproar was getting national attention.
In an article published in the Nov. 27, 1989, issue of Sports Illustrated, the Rev. Singleton was quoted as calling the decision to move Carlos Hunt from quarterback “callous and racial intolerance that seems to border on racial bigotry.”
Coach Jordan — who had started a black quarterback in three of his six years as head coach and had compiled a record of 51-18 along the way — was quoted as saying, “I have the right and obligation to make personnel decisions.”
I assigned two staff members to the controversy, and they spent four days in Conway conducting a wide-ranging investigation, which included interviews and examining statements, conversations and relevant records.
After reviewing their report on their findings, I issued a statement. It came as no surprise to me that it did not please a lot of people.
I said: “My staff informed me that they did not find sufficient facts upon which this agency could legally make a determination that race was a motivating factor in Coach Jordan’s decision toward Carlos Hunt.”
I was quoted in the Sports Illustrated article as saying the incident “was as far from racism as anything I’ve been involved in.” I did not dispute that quote.
Almost immediately, a member of my own commission attacked my decision vigorously.
Dr. William F. Gibson, a Greenville dentist with whom I had had some previous disagreements, said, “Mr. Clyburn may live in a society different from the one I live in. He may live in a race-neutral society ... but I personally believe this incident was racially motivated.”
Dr. Gibson, who was state chairman of the NAACP and chairman of the national board of the NAACP, went on to attack the Human Affairs agency, saying, “It’s regrettable that a state agency that is steadily losing its credibility among a large segment of the people it is supposed to protect would present such a biased finding.”
I was taking a lot of heat, in many ways tougher than any I had felt as the agency’s commissioner.
I commented, “People have said you ain’t thinking like a black person, and I tell them they’re exactly right. I’m thinking and acting like an administrator. I expect doctors to think and act like doctors, lawyers to think and act like lawyers, and reporters to think and act like reporters. I don’t think black or white; I make administrative decisions based on facts, not race.”
I went on to say, “I’m sorry Dr. Gibson has felt it necessary to personalize this issue. It’s unfortunate that people can’t understand that as head of a state agency, I can’t let emotions guide me.”
If I was catching heat on the racial front, I was getting some words of support from normally conservative newspapers.
One of them, The Greenville News , wrote: “This is the same Jim Clyburn who has argued eloquently against flying the ‘Gone with the Wind’ version of the Confederate flag atop the state capitol and who, as a state official, has ferreted out overt and subtle vestiges of racial controversy in this state. Clyburn’s integrity is an admirable personal quality and an asset to South Carolina. It’s ironic that some black leaders seek to discredit him for a sense of fairness they have often found lacking in white officials.”
My college-town paper, the Orangeburg Times and Democrat , was similarly supportive. ...
For all the back and forth, there were no winners and lots of losers in the Conway affair. For my part I worried that Carlos Hunt and the other black members of the football team would be losing a year of experience and costing themselves possible opportunities for scholarships that would permit them to go on to college.
I was not satisfied with simply conducting an investigation, issuing a finding and returning to Columbia. My role, I felt, had a deeper dimension that dealt not so much with the law and the legal facts of the case as it did with the human factor and the destructive consequences of human discord. I returned to Conway a few days after the Human Affairs Commission investigation was closed, trying to negotiate a settlement that would make it possible for the black players to return to the team.
Things were not improving in the community, however, and on Saturday, Sept. 9, 1,000 to 1,500 people marched in Conway to support the black players’ strike and protest the Rev. Singleton’s firing. In that atmosphere of unrelenting tension, I met at length with various parties to the dispute and their attorneys. ...
I drafted several proposed compromises that would make it possible for the black football players to return to the team. Compromises, however, require a degree of good faith among the parties, and in this instance there was virtually no good faith on the table. On Sept. 12, my proposals were rejected, and the stage was set for more public tension and acrimony. The football season was lost, but Rev. Singleton was reinstated to his job.
A calmer day in Conway
A few months later, on Jan. 26, 1990, I was invited to speak to the mostly white Conway Rotary Club, an invitation that I took as an important step by the community toward healing its wounds. As I concluded the speech, which contained a lot of rhetoric about restoring stability and racial peace to the area, I said:
“We learn painful lessons from Conway, and the pain takes a long time to leave us. But if the result is a reaffirmation of the good faith and trust among the leadership of all aspects of our community, then the pain has been productive and beneficial.
“Today, by your inviting me to speak, I feel we have taken a step in that direction. I sense that there are those in this audience who do not agree with everything I have said. There may be those who do not agree with anything I have said. But you have agreed among yourselves that you will hear me out, and that you will weigh my judgments and my comments in your future deliberations.
“That’s all I can ask. That’s all that can be expected from the leadership of a community which has been jolted badly by division and exploitation. I cannot take away the pain, nor can I prescribe instant solutions for the future. I can only say that there are those throughout this community who yearn for the type of dialogue and communication which can bring about long-term, beneficial solutions for all those involved.”