South Carolina’s Democratic Primary Is 400 Years in the Making

The Democratic National Committee decision to move South Carolina to the forefront in the presidential primaries—replacing both Iowa And New Hampshire—created a stir of race and rights. Despite the commotion, the practical benefit to the state’s Democratic Party is purely symbolic—that’s because if Joe Biden runs for officeAs expected, he was unlikely to face a challenger.

For Black political culture, however, choosing is like listening to a soulful South Carolina native tune. James Brown—it evokes a moving memory of one’s journey through separation, pain, hope, and pride. Understand that the state holds a special place in our political history—where race has been key to power since the days of slavery.

The party’s endorsement of the concerns of Black voters was an extension of the freedom march codified in Civil Rights Act 1964 And Voting Rights Act of 1965. For Democrats, raising diverse voices in the primaries transforms a major political party that has a history of white supremacy in the country—and nowhere else than in the South. Carolina.


While slavery in Virginia evolved gradually to replace contracted white servants, the colony of South Carolina was intended to be a slave society from the outset. In 1670, Africans were forced to Charleston by English slave traders and growers from Barbados in search of cheap land. They used Africans to clear swamps, build towns and grow rice – a crop familiar to farmers in West Africa.

Africans comprised much of the population of colonial South Carolina, and planters relied on brutal methods to control slave laborers. They lived in concentration camps that allowed to preserve elements of African language, spiritual practices and culture. They are the ancestors of “Gullah Geechee people” of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.

For more than two centuries, Africans fled rice plantations to find freedom in isolated swamps and islands. The settlements were known as chestnut colonies and ranged from small groups to towns with defensible walls, as historian Timothy James Lockley detailed in his book, Maroon Community in South Carolina.

A group of slaves in front of buildings at Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina in 1862.

Library of Congress

During the Civil War, Negroes of coastal South Carolina and Georgia were given ownership of abandoned lands. In 1865, Confederate General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field ordinal number 15 to grant former slaves plots of land to compensate for slavery.

It was a controversial decision that did not exist after the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, but could justify Blacks making claims in the states.

…for Black political culture, choosing is like listening to a soulful tune by South Carolina native James Brown—it evokes the emotional memory of one’s journey through separation, pain, hope and pride.

By 1865, the trial of self-governance was cut short because the land awarded for compensation was deemed illegal and reinstated to rebellious planters; families have established farms on plots of land that have been evicted from their homes. The South Carolina Democrats emerged as an instrument of white supremacy in opposition to the victorious Republican Party and what it saw as “Black Rule.”

South Carolina took the lead in enacting a racial law known as “Black code” means restoring the conditions of slavery. In 1867, federal troops intervened to give blacks a chance to be free. By 1876, however, South Carolina was once again under Democratic control and Governor Wade Hampton, a former commander of Confederate forces. Black citizenship has been crushed under many layers Jim Crow law and violence.

One of the most toxic state leaders is Ben “Triple Fork” Tillman (1847-1918), served as governor and senator, as well as a repressive voice. In the year 1900, he defends white supremacy on the floor of the United States Senate, saying, “We in the South have never recognized black rule over white men, and he never will. We never believed that he was on par with the whites.”

By the 1940s, the South Carolina Democratic Party was led by Strom Thurmond (1902-2003), served as governor and US Senator for a record 46 years. He was governor when President Harry Truman signed a operating command in 1948 ended segregation in the military. Thurmond lashed out in a statement, saying, “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not enough soldiers in the military to force the people of the South to break down segregation and recognize race. Negroes.”

That year, he campaigned for president as an anti-Truman candidate. I run under Democratic Party of the United States of America—or “Dixiecrats”—a coalition of Southern Democrats unhappy with the national party’s stance on civil rights. He won South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana in the general election and 39 state electoral votes.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1970.

Jerry Siskin/Reuters

Up until that point, national Democratic leaders had tried to organize a divisional coalition by turning a blind eye to Jim Crow as a local issue. The party rewarded southern allies by providing major federal investments such as military bases and infrastructure projects.


The civil rights movement made it impossible for the nation – and the Democratic Party – to continue to ignore racial injustice in the South.

Sit-ins, demonstrations, and petitions have raised awareness in South Carolina and especially in Orangeburg, a city with a black majority and home to two colleges.

During the 1960s, students began to challenge the city’s Jim Crow restrictions. Among them is the current leader of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Rep. James Clyburn, elected in 1993 as the state’s first Black congressman since Reconstruction. He met his wife, Emily England Clyburn, a descendant of the Gullah Geechee community, in Orangeburg prison in 1960 during a civil rights protest.

In February 1968, students stood up to protest a segregated bowling alley that wouldn’t allow a Vietnam War veteran to enter. About 300 people from South Carolina State University and Claflin University participated in the peaceful protest. However, when local police tried to stop the protest, a scuffle ensued. Democratic Governor Robert McNair ordered state police and the National Guard to restore order. As the 200 students returned to the State SC campus, a fire truck with an armed escort followed them and fired a shotgun, wounding 28 and killing 3—most of all was shot in the back in an incident known as Orangeburg Massacre.

The civil rights movement forced the National Democratic Party to switch from favoring the southern wing to fighting for racial justice. It did so with the knowledge that racial justice would break its alliance with Southern whites, but bet it could make up for the losses with elected Black voters. With the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks in the South flocked to the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party’s choice of South Carolina to start the presidential primaries was a symbolic gesture—but one with real significance in the American political story.

In response, southern white Democrats supported the Republican Party, which supported the states’ rights agenda for disgruntled racists. Former Democratic Senator Dixiecrat turned Senator Strom Thurmond joined the Republican Party and helped create a reorganization known as the Republican Party. “Southern Strategy.” By the 1980s, political parties in the South served as another marker of race.

People wait in line to cast their ballots to elect the president during early voting in Sumter, South Carolina, October 9, 2020.

Micah Green/Reuters

In recent years, Blacks have been the cornerstone of the Democratic Party in the South—but their political influence has been limited to predominantly Black cities, towns, and constituencies. In contrast, the white Republican Party holds power over elected city, county, state, and federal offices as well as government agencies.

Today, the age-old barrier to Black influence across the state has begun to ease. This progress was driven by demographic change, economic expansion, federal election laws, and the organization of Black Democrats. The states that include the switch are Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (centre) watches as the Confederate battle flag is permanently removed from the campus of South Carolina state headquarters during a ceremony in Columbia, South Carolina, July 10, 2015.

Jason Miczek/Reuteres

This is not the case in South Carolina, where Blacks make up 30% of the population, but much of it remains outside of state power. However, efforts by the state’s Democrats to forge inclusive coalitions have spurred the state’s Republican base to expand its footprint. In 2011, Nikki Haley took office as governor with the backing of the Tea Party; In 2013, she appointed Tim Scott to a vacant seat in the United States Senate and he was re-elected for two full terms (and, to this day, one of only three black U.S. Senators in office).

Although there are notable exceptions, the reality is large government agency and the legislative seats remained in the hands of conservative white men, as always.

The Democratic Party’s selection of South Carolina to start the presidential primaries was a symbolic gesture—but one with real significance in the American political story. Being the first voice heard in the primaries process is a tribute to the Black community’s long struggle for justice.

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