Legislative Black Caucus

The creation of the Legislative Black Caucus in the South Carolina legislature was a direct result of the civil rights movement and the legislation that came out of the movement. Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans began voting in large enough numbers to elect African- Americans to office. However, electoral success came slowly in South Carolina as well as elsewhere. In the late 1960s a few African-Americans won local offices in the state. In 1970 the percentage of African-Americans voting still lagged behind their percentage of the state population by about ten percentage points, but African-American voters comprised a little more than one in every five voters in the state (Bass and DeVries, 272). This was enough to elect the first African Americans to the legislature since 1902 (Botsch and Botsch, 72). Herbert Fielding, James Felder, and I.S. Levy Johnson won elections to the S.C. House of Representatives. The number of African-Americans in the legislature remained in single digits for the next four years. The major reason was that legislative districts were county-wide and only a few counties had enough African-American voters across the county to win elections. But in 1974 a lawsuit under the 1965 Voting Rights Act forced the state to redraw district lines into individual districts for each legislator. Because each race tended to live in concentrated areas, this increased the number of districts that had high percentages of African-American voters. Thus the number of African-Americans elected to the House of Representatives increased from three to 13 in the 1974 election (Underwood, 251-6; Bass and De Vries, 274).

Thirteen members out of a total of 124 members in the House was still far from being representative of African-Americans, who comprised roughly a third of the population of the state. But it was enough to organize. This small group formed the Legislative Black Caucus in 1975. With only a little persuasion, they convinced the white speaker of the house to appoint Caucus members to all permanent committees in the House so that African-Americans had input into all matters. Members covered the costs of running the organization from $300 that each contributed from their annual $7000 salary. The first chair of the caucus was Ernest Finney, a Sumter lawyer who had first been elected in 1972. The group held regional meetings to obtain input from African-American political activists across the state, and coordinated efforts with the Congressional Black caucus to persuade South Carolina's members of Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1975. Their efforts helped persuade all of the state's Democratic members of Congress to support extension. They also won some symbolic victories. The state hung a portrait of civil rights pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune in the state house. The state gave official recognition of Martin Luther King's birthday, though the recognition fell short of making it a permanent state holiday. The Legislative Black Caucus played a key role in expanding the state kindergarten system, over the opposition of Republican Governor Edwards (Bass and DeVries, 274-5).

In 1983 the Caucus included a senator with the election of  Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman to the South Carolina Senate. By the mid 1980s the caucus, which had grown to 21 members (17 in the House and four in the Senate) was given credit for several additional measures: a procurement statute that required consideration of minority business in state contracts, a Governor's Office for Small and Minority Business, and the creation of a State Human Affairs Commission (Kern).

The Legislative Black Caucus ranks were temporarily reduced and they lost seniority when several members were snared in the FBI sting operation called "Operation Lost Trust" in the early 1990s. In 1993 the legislature was moving toward reorganizing the structure of state government. The plan was to reduce the number of semi-autonomous state agencies and boards and combine them into cabinet departments that were more under gubernatorial control. The Legislative Black Caucus attempted to stop the move. Members felt that the new structure would jeopardize hard-won gains in minority representation on the governing boards of and leadership positions in some agencies. The governor would then control these positions. Because Republicans and certainly whites seemed to have the advantage in winning the governorship, African-American influence would be reduced. Members felt particularly incensed at their white Democratic colleagues for making a deal with a Republican governor. Senator Robert Ford complained that "Blacks in South Carolina have been faithful Democrats for probably since 1948... and I don't think it's fair at all for all the Democatic leaders...to make a deal with Governor Carroll Campbell on this reorganization that would turn this state to Republican control probably from now on." Senator Kay Patterson was even more bitter, saying that "When you get the governor and all them white so-called Democrats together and the Republicans and cut deals and they all get their candy, it's hard to beat that" (Scoppe, 1993). This bitterness helped build an atmosphere where the Legislative Black Caucus would deal with Republicans and sacrifice white Democrats in order to create additional legislative districts with a majority of African-American voters.

By 1994 Legislative Black Caucus numbers had increased to 25 and they were beginning to grow independent of white Democrats in their push for more "minority majority" districts (that is, districts where a majority of voters are of the minority race). They played a major and controversial role in legislative reapportionment fights, forming temporary political alliances of convenience with Republicans. (See Apportionment: African-American Representation.) Caucus members felt that white Democrats in the legislature were taking them for granted and were not sensitive to issues of importance to the Caucus, like welfare reform, jobs, and economic development. They were also angry about the defeat of Caucus member Lucille Whipper for the post of House Speaker Pro Tempore (Bandy). This period during the mid-1990s was perhaps the peak of poor relations between white and black Democrats in the legislature. Maggie Glover, who was to become the chair of the caucus in 1995, complained that working with Republicans would make little difference because "It's hard to for black folks to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats" because "it just become them and us, white folks and us."  However, despite this complaint, the Caucus had other victories to add to its accomplishments. These included the election of African-American judges, more money for traditionally black colleges, recruitment of more black teachers, and the building of rural health centers (Brooks and Scoppe).

The November 1994 elections boosted the Caucus up to 30 members (S.C. Legislative Manual, 1995), mainly as a result of the redrawing of district lines to maximize the numbers of African-Americans who could be elected. That same redrawing of lines also created many more almost completely white legislative districts. This helped Republicans gain a majority of the House, the first Republican majority since Reconstruction. Of course, this time it was a Republican Party controlled by whites. The Democrats barely held on to their majority in the State Senate.

Following the 1996 elections the number of African-Americans in the legislature reached a peak of 34 (26 in the House and 8 in the Senate)(S.C. Legislative Manual, 1996). Representative John Scott served as Caucus Chair beginning in 1997. Facing Republican Governor Beasley and 70 Republicans with only 52 Democrats, Scott was only able to win a few symbolic victories. He failed, as had every leader previous to him, in securing any compromise in removing the Confederate Naval Jack from atop the capitol dome ("Scott Masters Art"). Governor Beasley had proposed a compromise plan to remove it in late 1996, which the Caucus supported. However, the Republican-dominated House rejected their governor's proposal and voted instead to have a popular referendum on the issue. That proposal died in the Senate ("To Fly or Furl"). The major accomplishment of the year was almost purely symbolic: the commissioning and display of portraits of two African-Americans who served as House Speakers in the Reconstruction period ("Scott Masters Art").

In the 1998 legislative session, the Legislative Black Caucus had one of their own elected as Democratic Minority leader in the House of Representatives. With half the Democrats (who now numbered 50) as members of the Caucus (S.C. Legislative Manual, 1998) , the votes were there for Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who had been in the House since a special election in January 1992. Much speculation existed over whether white Democratic House members, many of whom were relatively more conservative than black Democrats, would remain in the party if it were led by a liberal black female ("The Colors of a Caucus"). But they did, and Cobb-Hunter has proven herself to be an effective, if controversial party leader. For example, prior to the 1998 elections she wrote a fundraising letter to video poker operators on behalf of the Democratic Party. Republicans screamed and some even called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate. They did not investigate, and Democrats across the state were aided by the money Cobb-Hunter helped raise ("State House Report").

Caucus members had found working with Republican Governor Beasley (1994-8) very difficult. In 1995 five Caucus members rated gubernatorial relations as mostly poor to fair at best. The only issue they felt they could work with the governor on was education (Botsch and Botsch, 86-7). In 1997 the Caucus pressed Governor Beasley to appoint more blacks to the cabinet level departments over which he had control. A study had shown that only 15% of the senior level executive positions in these departments were held by African-Americans ("That's Not Enough"). In 1998 the Caucus resorted to tactics of obstructionism when House members could not get Republican House leaders to pay them any attention. House Caucus members persuaded Senate Caucus members to use Senate procedures to block bills that were important to Republican House members ("Black Caucus Bill Blockade"). At the end of the 1998 session, the Caucus held a gala party to celebrate the anniversary of their founding, but it was held on a note of disappointment and the threat of more obstruction. Members said it had been the most contentious session in their memory. Caucus Chair John Scott told the press that until the leadership learned "to work with everybody" the war of obstruction would continue ("'98 Session Disappoints"). They had much to be upset over. House Republicans had passed a bill that limited affirmative action programs in the state ("Racial Sparks Ignite House Fire"). The Caucus had also been unsuccessful in opposing the PASS (Performance and Accountability Standards for Schools) program that they felt would unfairly penalize local school officials in areas of the state with a heavy African-American concentration ("PASS Plan Fails"). About the most significant achievement was the placing of a referendum measure on the November 1998 ballot that struck down the Constitutional prohibition against inter-racial marriage. Although the prohibition was "legal deadwood," meaning that it was not enforeceable because it came into conflict with federal law, its placement on the ballot and its subsequent passage were of symbolic importance.

In the 1998 elections, the number of African-American legislators in the legislature dropped slightly down to 31 (24 in the House and 7 in the Senate) from its peak after the 1996 election (S.C. Legislative Manual, 1997 and 1999), but the Democrats picked up five seats in the House (Senate elections, held every four years, were not scheduled until 2000). With the election of Democratic Governor Jim Hodges, the Caucus had greater potential influence, because the Governor needed all Democratic votes in facing a slim Republican majority in the House. In the 1999 session, Caucus members refused to be taken for granted. They withheld their votes for Governor Hodges' budget and for his proposal to have a referendum on video poker to gain leverage for their demand for rural economic development and for making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a permanent state holiday. After Hodges personally lobbied with members, they finally supported the video poker bill in the special legislative session called to deal with that issue. He promised that the Caucus agenda would have higher priority in the 2000 session. Representative Joe Neal, who became chair of the Caucus in 1999, spoke for many of the members in saying that the governor's lack of strong support for their agenda had become a sore point. Members felt they had a legitimate claim given the critical support that African-American voters had provided Hodges in his victory over incumbent Governor Beasley in 1998. However, some members, such as Rep. Ken Kennedy, were quite pleased with what Hodges had done for education with the passage of $400 million of new money and his First Steps program aimed at preparing children for school (Stroud).

The Caucus has always had both internal and external critics, usually for not pushing hard enough. A central dilemma of politics is deciding whether to compromise and get a little of what you want or to go down in self-righteous glory demanding it all. As the Caucus and its leaders have gained power, they have felt more pressure to compromise because getting something has become more possible. But that will always invite criticism. For example, South Carolina State Political Scientist Ricky Hill has criticized the caucus for what he sees as a deferential attitude toward white Democratic legislative leaders (Bandy, 12B). One of the caucus's more outspoken members, Kay Patterson, a member as a state representative from 1975 till his election to the Senate in 1985, where he has served since, has often called for more aggressive leadership (Kern). Sometimes the Caucus has come under criticism for openly cutting political deals. In 1996, for example, The State newspaper ran a lead editorial that chastised Senator Robert Ford for his candid remarks on how Caucus members were going to vote in a judicial election. Ford told the reporter that "we (the Caucus) haven't done enough deals yet....The fact that we've got the most prestigious judge with Judge Howard ain't got nothing to do with it." He went on to say that he and his fellow Black Legislative Caucus members had voted for Rep. Tom Huff (who was running for the judicial position against Howard) in a previous election "for future legislation and appointments" ("In Appeals Court Race").

Just as within the larger society, as the Caucus' membership increases, the probability increases that some members will get into legal trouble. In 1996 in a lead editorial, The State attacked Senator Maggie Glover, who was then chair of the Caucus ("Glover a Threat"). Glover had failed to pay a ticket, had her license suspended, and was arrested for speeding and driving with a suspended license. She subsequently apologized to the Senate for her behavior. The State also saw her as playing a negative role in undermining a compromise plan to bring down the Confederate flag from atop the capitol dome: "The Confederate battle flag would not be flying today if she and frequent ally Robert Ford has not insisted upon their ridiculous plan to leave it up and raise the 'Black Liberation' flag alongside it."

Even on the emotional issue of the flying of the Confederate Naval Jack over the capitol dome is not as simple as it once was for Caucus members. While nearly all are opposed to the flying it in a place that properly displays the flag of the sovereign government, that is, the government that holds power in the state, members disagree over the priority of this issue. Some are willing to compromise. In July 1999 the NAACP, at the request of the group's South Carolina Conference, passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the state by tourists and groups that might want to meet in the state. While most Caucus members supported the move, Senator Robert Ford opposed it on the grounds that the effort would only create more anger on the part of those who defend it (Stroud, "NAACP," A7). He has argued that he wants it to remain flying and be joined by flying the black liberation flag. Of course, this could be seen as a move backwards to separate but equal status. Some members could be concerned that a long emotional fight on the flag in the 2000 session would jeopardize other measures that are substantively more important to the daily physical well-being of African-Americans in the state, such as rural economic development. Others, such as 1999 Caucus Chair Joe Neal, see the flag issue as a daily slap in the face that will divide the state as long as it flies. Caucus member Joe Brown was reportedly drafting a bill to bring the flag down that he planned to introduce when the legislature met in January 2000 (Stroud, "NAACP," A7). After a few weeks delay, the Caucus met on August 5, 1999, and a strong majority voted to support the NAACP resolution. Two members, Senator Maggie Glover and Representative Ted Brown, voted against the resolution, taking the same side as Senator Robert Ford, who was not present for the vote. Senator John Matthews, the new Chair of the Caucus, noted that while the vote was to remove the flag, some compromise could be possible in the future. The group also considered moving its fall retreat to a location out of the state in support of the boycott (Stroud, "Black Caucus Embraces").

These problems are a sign of a maturing organization that has become institutionalized into South Carolina politics. Because the Caucus is now nearly a majority part of the Democrats in the House and because its members occupy party leadership positions, they will continue to face the dilemma of how far to push the Caucus agenda when it has different priorities than the Democratic agenda. In a newspaper interview in July of 1999, Caucus member and Minority Leader Gilda Cobb-Hunter talked about learning two lessons of history. She wants to maintain Democratic unity and not implode as she has seen Republicans do in dealing with their more extreme internal factions. Yet at the same time the desires of African-American voters who have helped Democrats win office must be remembered. "You know, you don't need to get to the point where you forget to dance with who brung you" (Stroud, "Democratic Legislators Feud," B6).

Sources:

Bandy, Lee. "Black Caucus Tells Party to Listen Up." The State (March 6, 1994), 1B, 12 B.

Bass, Jack, and Walter DeVries. The Transformation of Southern Politics. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

"Black Caucus Bill Blockade Stings House." The State (May 24, 1998).

Botsch, Carol S., and Robert E. "African-Americans and South Carolina Politics." The Journal of Political Science, Vol. XXIV (1996), 63-101.

Brook, Nina, and Jim Davenport. "Glover Makes Apology to Senate." The State (February 7, 1999), B1.

 Brook, Nina, and Cindi Ross Scoppe, "Black Caucus Coming of Age," The State (June 13 1994), A1.

"Glover A Threat On the Road, A Disgrace Upon the Senate." The State (January 6, 1996), A8.

"In Appeals Court Race, Odds Favor the Politician." The State (February 13, 1996), A10.

Kern, David. "At Age 10, State's Black Caucus Shifts Focus." The State (April 21, 1985), 1D.

"PASS Plan Fails Many, Group Says: Black Leaders Fear Schools That Are 'Separate But Unequal.'" The State (January 27, 1998).

"Racial Sparks Ignite House Fire: 'I've Had It Up To Here:' Lawmakers Collide on Affirmative Action." The State (March 4, 1998).

South Carolina Legislative Manual, various years.

Scoppi, Cindi Ross. "Black Caucus Hoping to Derail Restructuring." The State, Special Edition: Restructuring: The Players and Politics (February 11, 1993).

"Scott Makes Art of Symbolism." The State (July 31, 1997).

"State House News About State Government." The State (March 12, 1998).

Stroud, Joseph S. "Black Caucus Embraces Flag Boycott." The State (August 6, 1999), B1,5.

Stroud, Joseph S. "Democratic Legislators Feud Despite Success." The State (July 6, 1999), B1, B6.

Stroud, Joseph S. "NAACP Calls For Boycott on S.C.: Group Wants Confederate Flag Down." The State (July 16, 1999), A1, A7.

"'That's Not good Enough' Blacks Pressing Beasley for More High-Level jobs." The State (December 17, 1997).

"The Colors of a Caucus: Will White Conservatives Flee Their Party if Black Woman Leads House Democrats?" The State (January 10, 1998).

"To Fly or Furl." The State (July 16, 1999), A7.

Underwood, James Lowell. The Constitution of South Carolina, Volume IV: The Struggle for Political Equality. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
 

last updated 8/16/99
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