Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On this date: Gov. James F. Byrnes speaks to The SCEA, 1951

There was a time in South Carolina when public education was such a priority to statesmen, and educators were such a potent and valued human resource, that governors came to address teachers at their annual gatherings. But there was a time, too, when South Carolina's leaders were statesmen.

Such was the case sixty years ago today when one of South Carolina's true statesmen, Governor James F. Byrnes, addressed the representative assembly of The South Carolina Education Association. It was the first of two such addresses to this body, this one in the first year of his term -- less than two months after his inauguration, in fact -- and the second coming in the last year of his term.

For those unfamiliar with Byrnes, it is no exaggeration to call him one of the greatest of South Carolina's products in the twentieth century and, indeed, he played an active role in shaping that century. His election to the governor's office was merely the cherry atop a long and storied life in public service.

As a young Congressman, Byrnes became a close and trusted ally to President Woodrow Wilson. Though Byrnes was associated with Sen. "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, it was Byrnes who often influenced the older Tillman -- and for the better -- rather than the other way round. As a U.S. Senator, he supported Franklin Roosevelt's bid for the presidency and Roosevelt rewarded him with a seat on the United State Supreme Court -- making him only the third South Carolinian to serve on that body, and the only South Carolinian on the Supreme Court in the twentieth century.

But life on the court was too restrictive, and he resigned the seat before his second anniversary in it, first leading Roosevelt's Economic Stabilization Office, then the Office of War Mobilization. His influence was so great -- and his relationship with Roosevelt so close -- that he was nicknamed "Assistant President." Byrnes was believed to be Roosevelt's choice for vice president on the 1944 ticket, until Roosevelt chose Sen. Harry Truman of Missouri instead. Still, it was Byrnes who came with Roosevelt to the "Big Three" Conference at Yalta in 1945, and Byrnes served as Truman's Secretary of State until 1947.

To place Byrnes in more particular context, consider this: Upon his resignation as Secretary of State, he was succeeded by George Marshall, author of the "Marshall Plan" that rebuilt postwar Europe. Byrnes's seat on the U.S. Supreme Court is now held by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

So it was this statesman and confidante to three presidents who held South Carolina's chief executive office in 1951 -- taking over from former Governor Strom Thurmond, no less -- and who spoke to South Carolina's educators in Columbia sixty years ago today. As governor, the quality and easy access of the state's public schools to its children were paramount concern. As a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, he understood the gathering storm around public education as a civil right. As a native South Carolinian and politician, he understood the volatility of integration as a political issue, and he positioned himself as one earnestly seeking to equalize the quality of schools for black and white children, under a segregated system.

"It has been three-fourths of century since South Carolina faced a problem more serious than the one we face today," he began. "After the War for Southern Independence, reconstruction was a tremendous task. Second only to that is the task now confronting us to provide adequate educational facilities for the children of our State."

For those children we must provide new school buildings, more teachers, and better transportation. And we must try to preserve the Public School System. Every child in the State, white or colored, should have the opportunity for a full public school education. It must be our goal to see that each of them accepts that opportunity.

South Carolina must go forward. It cannot go forward without a new educational program. You cannot lift the State economically without raising the educational level of the people. Statistics will show that in the states where there is the greatest illiteracy there is the smallest per capita income.

I am sure you and all other South Carolinians were humiliated recently to read that during a three-months period last fall the rejection rate of draftees for military service, due to mental causes, was higher in South Carolina than in any other State in the Union. More than 60 percent of the men in this State were rejected. The rejection rate was 35 percent for the rest of the South.

I am convinced this humiliating rejection rate was due not so much to lack of intelligence as to lack of education.

Byrnes cited a litany of numbers: children going without education, never enrolling in schools; lamenting the poor shape of existing schools, and the "shifts" required of its instructors to serve all of their pupils; the fact that South Carolina was home to more school-age children than any other Southern state; and the fact that some classrooms were packed with 40 children.

So Byrnes described his proposed campaign for school construction and other educational improvements. He concluded that greater tax revenues were necessary to fund this program, so he advocated for the issuance of $75 million in bonds, and the implementation of a new sales tax, to finance it -- regardless of the political fallout.

But he recognized there were be vehement opposition to raising tax revenues to do what was inherently right, and he addressed it:

Naturally there is opposition to the Sales Tax. There is opposition to every tax, but I have failed to find any man who is really in favor of improving our educational facilities who will suggest a substitute tax plan.

I can understand the position of the man who thinks it is a waste of money to educate the children of people he calls "common people." He is willing that we should continue to have more illiteracy than any state in the Union. I disagree with him but I understand him.

I cannot understand the position of the man who says he is in favor of increasing teachers' salaries, improving the transportation system, constructing new school buildings, and yet opposes the sales tax and offers no substitute. He wants to help the children -- provided it does not cost him anything.

That cannot be done. It will cost money. But the education of our children is the primary duty of our State just as National Defense is the primary duty of the Federal Government.

When we properly discharge our duty, we make more difficult the task of those who would have the Federal Government control our schools.

Other Southern states have had to meet this problem. Practically every state in the South now has a sales tax. It is argued by some that it will be a greater burden to the poor. The benefits will be greater to the poor. It is among them that we find large families and their children cannot be sent to private schools.

Schools in our cities, as a rule, are well equipped. The schools in our small towns and rural areas are not. The one teacher schools in rural areas, having not more than 15 or 20 pupils cannot secure good teachers. Our people must realize that these schools should be consolidated. I want the boys and girls of small towns and rural areas to have opportunities in life equal to the boys and girls of cities.

Men and women who receive little or no education participate in the election of those who govern this State. Government will only be as intelligent as the electorate. Moreover, the cities of South Carolina cannot prosper economically unless the peoples of the rural areas are educated and can increase their incomes. The improvement of conditions in rural sections is of vital concern to every city.

Just as pressing was the issue of equal schools for children of both races, and Byrnes -- who might have voted on these matters himself if he'd remained on the Court -- spelled out his expectations:

Last spring there were pending in the United States Supreme Court two cases brought by Negroes, one against the University of Texas and one against the University of Oklahoma. These cases were based on the charge that facilities furnished Negroes of the Negro colleges of the two states were not equal to the facilities furnished in colleges for whites. The United States Government was not involved in the suit. However, the attorney general filed an argument. He did not ask for equal facilities. On behalf of the United States Government he asked that the Court abolish segregation in State supported colleges. The Court did not decide this issue. It held it was no necessary to the disposition of the cases in which the petitioners asked only for equal facilities.

Last fall, after the election of this Legislature, some Negroes who had brought a suit against Clarendon County, asking for equal facilities, abandoned that suit. But they instituted a new suit, asking that the provisions of our constitution and statutes requiring separate schools for the races, be held unconstitutional.

That case will be tried before a three-Judge Court in Charleston the last week of May. I do not see how a Judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals and two District Judges can reverse a decision of the Supreme Court which has been the law of the land for more than a half century. They may express their desire to do so but only the Supreme Court can reverse a decision of the Supreme Court.

No matter what may be the decision of the Court in Charleston, the case will go to the Supreme Court of the United States. My hope is that the record to be considered by that Court will show that regardless of how we may have failed in the past to provide substantially equal facilities, that a courageous and forward looking Legislature has enacted a law providing an educational program that will improve facilities for Negro children as well as for white children. I hope, too, it can show that the Governor of this State has said he will use what influence he has to accomplish that end.

Then, adopting the same strident tone that Sen. Thurmond would adopt in his failed bid for the presidency in 1948, Byrnes declared that South Carolina "will not now nor for some years to come, mix white and colored children in our schools. In the Reconstruction Days, a carpetbag government tried to do it and failed. A Democratic administration cannot now do what a Republican administration could not then do."

His next words were a strange admonition of things to come, far and long beyond the fight for civil rights and even into the century he wouldn't live to see: "If the Court changes what is now the law of the land, we will, if it is possible, live within the law, preserve the public school system, and at the same time maintain segregation. If that is not possible, reluctantly we will abandon the public school system."

He predicted that under such circumstances, school buildings "could be sold or leased" by the state, perhaps to parochial school interests. He imagined that the state might return the amount of tax revenues then being spent on public schools to parents, and "permit them to pay for the education of their children."

He acknowledged, "The difficulty, of course, is that many of those who most need education would not be sent to school. Now we find it difficult to get many children to attend free schools."

He told educators that he did not want these speculations to come to fruition, but he understood South Carolina's people and their predilections. In his conclusion, he turned to the state's educators for aid, and delivered sentiments that sound absolutely foreign to modern educators' ears:

No matter how serious may be the problems ahead of us, I know that the State can rely upon the loyal and intelligent assistance of the teachers of our schools.

I have an exalted idea of the importance of your profession. I resent the charge that this Association has no purpose other than to make efforts to increase your salaries. You fashion the thinking of the children of our State. You influence their lives. I believe you have at heart the future of your pupils, as well as your own future. I believe from your group meetings here you have benefitted and will be better able to help your schools.

The life of a teacher must be a life of sacrifice. To teach you must spend four years at college, and, in addition, you must continue to study as long as you teach. The college graduate who enters your profession cannot hope to receive the compensation of the doctor, the lawyer, the bricklayer, and the plumber. You may receive compensation equal to that of a preacher. You are entitled to compensation that will enable you to maintain a standard of living demanded by your profession. But, you do have a compensation greater than your financial reward. You see your pupils go out into the world. When one makes good in life, it must bring to you a satisfaction second only to the satisfaction of the parents of that pupil.

I ask God to bless you. I ask it with earnestness because upon you depends in great measure the character of the men and women who will guide this State in the days ahead of us.

Among Jimmy Byrnes's great gifts was prescience, as his predictions largely came to pass: The Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education changed the expectations of South Carolina's system of public education, to the anger and resentment of many citizens. The several years it took to integrate the schools gave segregationists time to establish "segregation academies," many of which still exist. Byrnes's premonition that the state would abandon its public school system is still playing out today, despite a few progressive spasms -- Governor Richard Riley's statesmanly efforts spring to mind -- in the intervening years. And his speculation that lawmakers would attempt to divert public funds to private schools has come to life in the form of vouchers, "opportunity scholarships" and "tuition tax credits."

It was a powerful presentation, delivered by a gifted and skillful state leader, to those he considered to stand among the state's most important citizens -- for their impact on the state's most precious element, its children.

That, it seems, is history.

No comments:

Post a Comment