Editor’s Note: In light of the last article about Joseph Goldberger and pellagra, I felt like continuing today’s theme of strange Jewish outliers in Southern history who have been largely forgotten.
Here’s an excerpt from Clive Webb’s book Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights about Solomon Blatt, the Jewish Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, who was a mensch and the leader of the massive resistance movement and led the legislative fight against desegregation in South Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s:
“During the 1950s and 1960s, South Carolina staunchly opposed school desegregation. A week before the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Governor James F. Byrnes declared that any change in the law would be met with determined resistance. …”
Webb describes the reaction of Solomon Blatt to the integration of Clemson University and the restoration of compulsory attendance at integrated public schools:
“In January 1963 Harvey Gantt was enrolled at Clemson College, the first African American in the state to be admitted to a formally white school. In this new spirit of moderation, Representative Heyward McDonald introduced a bill to the state legislature calling for the restoration of compulsory school attendance.
Opposition to the bill was led by the Speaker of the House, Solomon Blatt. When the bill came before the legislature in 1966, Blatt introduced an amendment to exclude his native Barnwell County. For eight years, Blatt had refrained from addressing the House on a pending issue. The school attendance bill, however, had clearly stirred something deep inside him. Photographs show him stabbing his finger and waving his fist at colleagues, tears swelling in his eyes as he delivers what one paper described as “an oratorical explosion.” Do you want some sixteen-year-old so-and-so holding the hand of your little granddaughter in the classroom?” he demanded to know. “Sol Blatt doesn’t want that. For God’s sake, help me out.”
Solomon Blatt also opposed the integration of the University of South Carolina:
“Solomon Blatt was by no means the sole mastermind of the massive resistance movement in South Carolina. Yet Blatt’s influence cannot be underestimated. As Speaker of the House, he exerted an almost dictatorial control over the legislative process in South Carolina. As Governor John West once observed, his support for an issue was critical to its success; his opposition ensured that “it would almost surely fail.” …
Blatt was actively involved in the legal resistance to desegregation almost from the outset of his political career. In 1938, the NAACP launched a legal challenge to enforce the admission of a black student to the law school at the University of South Carolina. Blatt chaired a three-member committee appointed by the university to assess the application. The committee could not be described as impartial. Before it had even reached its decision, Blatt issued the following public statement: “The white people of South Carolina need not have any fear as to what the outcome of this application is going to be. The Board of Trustees will do everything in their power to maintain the University of South Carolina for white students only, and in doing so, will protect the other institutions for white students supported by this state.” The black student was denied admission. …
Over the course of thirty years, Solomon Blatt had led an increasingly desperate rearguard action against court-ordered integration. At the height of the desegregation crisis, his influence in formulating the legal resistance to the Brown decision had been unmatched by any other legislator. In less than twenty years he had become an anachronism. His long reign as Speaker of the House was soon to end.”
From 1951 until 1973, Solomon Blatt opposed integration as one of the most powerful elected officials in South Carolina. This is even more extraordinary when you consider that Blatt was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and was proud of the fact that Jews were so assimilated and accepted in the South Carolina of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the aftermath of the Brown decision, the South Carolina House of Representatives – in which Blatt, the son of a Russian Jew was Speaker of the House – passed 28 laws designed to circumvent public school desegregation. Webb notes that Blatt was successful in pushing a compromise bill through the South Carolina House that would have delayed integration until 1974.
In 1968, federal courts ruled that Blatt’s freedom of choice plan was unconstitutional and ordered all school districts in South Carolina to eliminate their dual school systems the following year. In the fall of 1970, all public schools in South Carolina opened on an integrated basis.
Among other things, Solomon Blatt was also known for using his influence in the South Carolina state legislature to create South Carolina’s state highway system and for backing the expansion of the University of South Carolina. Blatt is one of the most interesting segregationists.
Note: I’m sharing this story because when I first came across it I was like, wow, that’s interesting … I didn’t know that.