Originally created 03/03/03

Historians gather to discuss struggle for civil rights in S.C.



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- More than 70 historians from across the country and from England and Japan will gather at The Citadel this week to discuss new research about South Carolina's civil rights era, from 1895 to 1970.

"No state has such an interesting cast of characters in civil rights as South Carolina," said Vernon Burton, a South Carolina-raised historian and civil rights expert who teaches Southern history at the University of Illinois.

The topics are relevant today.

Many current issues from affirmative action to Confederate flag disputes to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to failing black schools in rural South Carolina can't be fully understood without a knowledge of segregation and the civil rights era.

"It is my hope that the conference will make South Carolina feel good about itself - we have more heroes than Confederate heroes," said Burton, a Furman graduate who was raised in Ninety Six.

The conference will feature fresh looks at known S.C. civil rights events, such as the desegregation of Clemson and the trailblazing role of U.S. Judge Waites Waring of Charleston in standing up for equal rights.

But little-known events and people also will be discussed, including how a black plumber from Cheraw named Levi Byrd worried about blacks being killed and beaten began in the 1930s to organize an active NAACP across South Carolina.

At first glance, The Citadel might seem an unlikely place for such a conference.

The school was established in 1842 after white slave owners wanted an institution that would produce military leaders to put down slave rebellions.

It wasn't until the 1960s that The Citadel, a public state college, admitted a black student.

But in its more recent past, The Citadel is known for sponsoring major conferences on history.

While teaching at The Citadel, Burton, began talking with Bo Moore, 53, a Citadel history professor, about having a conference on South Carolina civil rights at the school.

Moore and Burton issued invitations to 2,000 members of the Southern Historical Association, asking historians to submit proposals.

"This is one of the first such conferences to be devoted to the civil rights movement in any Southern state," said Moore said.

Walter Edgar, historian and author of a 1998 history of South Carolina that has sold 40,000 copies, said it's important to know just how far the state has come.

"We need to know that somebody didn't just flip a switch and then Matthew Perry (who is black) became a federal judge," he said. "That didn't happen without people on both sides of the racial divide saying that things were going to change."

Dozens who played roles in the state's civil rights era from former Gov. John West to civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry and Harvey Gantt, the first black student at Clemson, will speak.

"It's important for the state to come to grips with its history, learn from it, and move on," Burton said.