Colleagues of former U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings said a statue unveiled Monday at the federal courthouse in Charleston that used to bear his name honors a man who served South Carolinians with courage, integrity and wit.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Hollings’ 2015 request that Congress rename the building for a judge considered a civil rights hero epitomized his friend’s lifetime of selfless service.
“Nobody, nobody, nobody has ever said, ‘Take my name off a revered building in my city and put someone else’s name on it,’” Biden said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said congressional researchers confirmed to him before he introduced the legislation at Hollings’ insistence that it was a first.
Hollings’ statue is outside the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center, renamed for a South Carolina judge who attracted death threats for his rulings against segregation in the 1940s and 50s.
Biden and other colleagues said the 95-year-old former Democratic governor is one of the reasons South Carolina avoided the violence of other Southern states during desegregation. Before leaving the governor’s office in 1963, Hollings urged legislators to accept integration peacefully.
South Carolina “must realize the lesson of 100 years ago and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States,” Hollings told the Legislature in a joint assembly. “This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order.”
Later that month, Harvey Gannt, a graduate of an African-American high school in Charleston, integrated Clemson University.
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley noted Hollings made that speech while planning to run for the U.S. Senate, when it politically made “no sense” for him to take an unpopular position.
“Because of what he did, the door was opened in South Carolina,” Biden said, while other Deep South governors were “fomenting hate and division.”
Hollings was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966 and went on to serve nearly 40 years before retiring in 2005.
Colleagues praised Hollings for bringing attention to poverty, leading reporters on a series of “hunger tours” in 1969 and publishing a book the next year titled “The Case Against Hunger.” Hollings co-sponsored a law creating a program that provides nutritional food to pregnant women, new moms and children up to 5 years old.
Riley said it’s impossible to calculate the lives saved through that law alone. He also said it was because of “this dynamo in Washington” that Charleston recovered as quickly as it did following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, because of the federal aid Hollings arranged, and survived the Navy base’s 1996 closure, with new military jobs sent to Charleston.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said BMW and Boeing would not be in South Carolina without the technical college system that Hollings created while governor. Part of the colleges’ role is training workers for industries moving into an area. Hollings, who served in the Army during World War II, represents the “greatest generation” well, Graham said.
Gov. Henry McMaster noted he was one of Hollings’ “victims,” getting “stomped firsthand” when he tried unsuccessfully in 1986 to unseat Hollings. Giving an example of Hollings’ quick wit, McMaster recalled challenging Hollings in a debate to take a drug test.
“He immediately challenged me to an IQ test. We still laugh about that one,” McMaster said. “Few men in our country can match” Hollings’ service.
Biden said Hollings is the reason he became a U.S. senator and vice president. Their friendship began when Hollings endorsed him as a then-29-year-old Senate candidate and then, a month after the upset, convincing him not to give up the job when his wife and daughter died in a car crash. When Biden didn’t show up to his swearing in, Hollings arranged for it to happen at the hospital where his sons were, Biden said.
They sat beside each other for the next 30 years. Biden was also the key speaker at the 2010 dedication of a University of South Carolina library named after Hollings.
“I marvel at your integrity,” Biden told Hollings.
While he remained seated, Hollings spoke briefly at the end, thanking the speakers and praising Biden’s ability to “wheel and deal” as senator and vice president.