“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
— Lee Atwater, 1981 interview
This may be the best summary of the evolution of racial politics in South Carolina and America, as articulated by S.C. native son Lee Atwater — the most skillful practitioner of the political dark arts of race and division in the last 40 years.
If we advance the calendar and rhetoric a bit, we get to law and order … the silent majority … Willie Horton … Mexicans and immigrants … Muslims … and — via two of Lee Atwater’s protegees — Donald Trump.
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No one should be surprised by Trump’s tactics or even his rhetoric, as they are the same basic strategies, divisive tactics and inflammatory language that have been the hallmark of racial politics in South Carolina (and much of the nation) for generations.
Let’s begin with Reconstruction, which ushered in a period of open virulent racism as personified by Pitchfork Ben Tillman of Edgefield County. Tillman, who often boasted that he had personally killed a number of blacks, was elected governor in 1890 and was a U.S. senator from 1895 until his death in 1918.
As a senator, Tillman responded to President Theodore Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House by saying, “The actions of the President in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in South Carolina before they will learn their place.”
Tillman’s most famous political pupil was Jimmy Byrnes, who became a congressman, U.S. Senator, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, “assistant President” to Franklin Roosevelt in the war effort, secretary of state and then S.C. governor.
Though Byrne’s racial language was more subdued than Tillman’s and his attitudes were not as sharp, when he was governor in 1950-54, he chose a policy of harsh resistance to desegregation rather than the more moderate policies of some other Southern governors.
Next in line is Strom Thurmond, a longtime lieutenant of Byrnes. Thurmond’s record of fanning and exploiting racial fears is unparalleled in South Carolina or national history. In 1948, Thurmond ran for president on the States Rights or Dixiecrat ticket, and in 1957, he conducted a solo filibuster of a civil rights bill by talking for 24 hours and 18 minutes, a record that still stands today.
One of Thurmond’s chief advisers was Harry Dent, a brilliant political strategist who was considered the architect of the Republicans’ Southern Strategy, which used race as a wedge issue to drive Southern Democrats into supporting Republican candidates — beginning with Richard Nixon in 1972.
As a protege of Dent and Thurmond for more than 20 years, Atwater learned and perfected the use of racial symbols and code words to win elections in the modern age of TV politics. The most famous example was the Willie Horton ad, which used the ominous figure of a black man who had brutally murder a white woman to sink the 1988 presidential campaign of Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis and elect George Bush.
Atwater’s political consulting business that helped elect Bush and dozens of Republican candidates was Black, Manafort, Stone and Atwater, and it continues to this day. Two of the principals, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, have been close advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Thus, the line is complete.
The raw racist politics that began in rural, hard scrabble Edgefield, South Carolina, in the Reconstruction Era have now found their fullest expression in the media-savvy, hate-fueled campaign of a New York billionaire in the age of Twitter. Times have changed, geography has changed, language has changed, but the same vile racism and bigotry continues.
Mr. Noble runs a technology business in Charleston. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of his columns at philnoble.com/column.