As a very young boy of 9 years old, I first became interested in politics when my father off-handedly encouraged me to watch the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate in 1960. It changed my life — literally.
After the debate my father asked me what I thought and I responded, “I kinda like that Kennedy guy.” My dad then replied, “Why don’t you go help him in the campaign?”
I was stunned by the very idea that I, as a 9-year-old, could actually be involved in something that I just saw on television. So, the next day after school I got on my little red bicycle and rode down to the local Democratic Party headquarters and walked in the front door, fully expecting to see John Kennedy sitting behind the desk. He wasn’t there.
My disappointment was soon overcome by the excitement of the sounds and activities of the campaign office – the phones were ringing, folks were nailing signs together, an old-fashioned mimeograph machine was cranking in the corner churning out fliers, volunteers were talking about the debate we had seen last night while licking stamps and stuffing envelopes — and there were huge posters on the wall of my newfound hero.
For a 9-year-old, it was about the most exciting thing I had ever seen — and I was literally dumbfounded by the very idea that I could be a part of it.
I eagerly jumped in with both feet and, from then on, I spent every afternoon after school and on weekends at the campaign office. To the adults, I quickly became the campaign pet – they would pat me on the head occasionally and throw me a bone of a new job to do. Sweeping the floor, handing out leaflets, going for coffee or whatever an adult asked me to do – I eagerly did.
I felt like I was helping to elect a president! That experience lit a fire of passion for politics and public service that still burns within me more than 50 years later.
Probably the first adult book I ever read was Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” I didn’t really understand much but I did grasp the basic premise that it was a rare and special thing when someone in politics was willing to stand up and do what they thought was right, even if it was unpopular to the point of their suffering political defeat.
Now fast-forward about 50 years or so and consider the case of the only two South Carolina politicians — both Republicans — who have received the Profiles in Courage Award. The award is presented annually by the Kennedy Library in recognition of political leaders who have taken a principled stand on issues that were politically unpopular.
In 2003, former Gov. David Beasley received the award for his strong leadership and support for taking the Confederate flag down from the State House dome. And this year, former Congressman Bob Ingles was afforded the same honor for his courage in sounding the alarm about the dangers of climate change.
Both took their stand in the face of overwhelming opposition from their own party and most agree that it was that stand that caused each to lose the next election.
Although such courage is rare in politics, we in South Carolina have had other notables who demonstrated the same courage to speak out for principles that were highly unpopular at the time, but history has shown was right. Below, are just three such examples.
The Grimke Sisters, Angelina and Sarah, were born into a family of the bluest of blue-bloods of early 19th century Charleston aristocracy. In keeping with the times, their family owned large plantations and hundreds of slaves. Both began to publicly question the morality of slavery and were eventually forced to leave their beloved Charleston. They went to Massachusetts, where they became fierce and effective advocates for both abolition and women’s rights.
James L. Petigru was attorney general of South Carolina and was called “the first citizen of the state” for his devotion to our state and its people. However, he strongly opposed secession. It was Petigru who, in December 1860, while standing on Meeting Street in Charleston watching the delegates file into Institute Hall to sign the Ordinance of Secession, uttered those famous words that I believe best describe our beloved state: “Poor South Carolina, too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
Judge Waites Waring is probably the best-known recent example. As a federal judge in the 1950s, his rulings in a number of civil rights cases shocked his fellow South Carolinians but paved the way for many landmark cases, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation. He was so ostracized by his fellow citizens of Charleston that he eventually moved to New York.
These are just a few of the most famous examples, but there are surely countless others that are less well known but just as important.
I’d like to ask readers of this column to send me information on other South Carolinians in politics — particularly on the local level — who deserve a South Carolina Profile in Courage Award for their principled but unpopular stand. Send them to me via the email address below and I’ll publish the best of them in a future column.
We have far too few profiles in courage in politics today — either in South Carolina or nationally — and we need to recognize those brave souls who demonstrate such courage.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.