Wednesday, May 19, 2010
AS SEEN IN:
"SEPARATE BUT EQUAL"
AS PLAYED BY:
James Francis Byrnes (May 2, 1879 – April 9, 1972) was an American statesman from the state of South Carolina. During his career, Byrnes served as a member of the House of Representatives (1911–1925), as a Senator (1931–1941), as Justice of the Supreme Court (1941–1942), as Secretary of State (1945–1947), and as the 104th Governor of South Carolina (1951–1955). He therefore became one of very few politicians to be active in all three branches of the federal government while also being active in state government. He was also a confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was one of the most powerful men in American domestic and foreign policy in the mid-1940s.
At an age when most of his contemporaries were retiring from political life, Byrnes was not yet ready to give up public service, and at age 72 he was elected governor of South Carolina, serving from 1951 to 1955, in which capacity he vigorously criticized the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Although as a Southern politician he was virtually obliged to oppose racial integration, he still took steps during his term to advance education in South Carolina by first proposing a three percent sales tax to upgrade schools for whites and blacks.
While Byrnes upheld the segregation laws, he felt those laws could only be considered fair by making black schools equitable with white schools. Therefore, during his term as governor, Byrnes allocated two-thirds of the revenue from the sales tax to black schools. He also consolidated school districts from 1,200 to 102, enabling the remaining districts to make improvements with the additional funding made available.
Ironically, Byrnes was initially seen as a strong moderate voice for Negro rights. Recognizing that the South could not continue with its entrenched segregationist policies much longer, but fearful of Congress imposing sweeping civil rights upon the South, he opted for a course of change from within. To that end, he sought to at last fulfill the Supreme Court's promise of "separate but equal," particularly in regard to public education, and he poured state money into improving Negro schools, buying new textbooks and new buses, and hiring additional teachers. He also sought to curb the power of the Ku Klux Klan by passing a law that prohibited adults from wearing a mask in public on any day other than Halloween; by this measure, he knew that many Klansmen feared exposure, and would not appear in public in their robes unless their faces were hidden as well.
Byrnes hoped to make South Carolina an example for other Southern states to modify their "Jim Crow" policies. That didn't stop the NAACP from filing a suit against South Carolina to force the state to desegregate its schools. Byrnes turned to Kansas, a Northern state which also segregated its schools, to provide a "friend of the court" statement supporting the right of school segregation on his state's behalf in the trial. This gave the NAACP's lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, the idea to shift the suit from South Carolina over to Kansas, which led directly to Brown v. Board of Education.
The South Carolina state constitution limited governors to one four-year term, and Byrnes retired from active political life following the 1954 election.
In his later years, Byrnes foresaw the South as a much more important player in national politics, and to hasten that development, he sought to end the South's automatic support of the Democratic Party (which Byrnes felt had grown too liberal, and which took the "Solid South" for granted at election time, yet otherwise ignored the region and its needs), and to realign it with the Republican Party. This was despite the fact that Byrnes remained a Democrat for much of the rest of his life.
Toobworld note: Governor Byrnes was played a lot younger than he was in real life, but since John McMartin portrayed him (one of my ten favorite actors), I have no complaints.