COLUMBIA, S.C. — With his left hand clutching his chest and the other steadying himself with his cane, African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Frederick James stood next to the casket and quietly said a prayer for his friend of more than 50 years.
Though the late Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, who served South Carolina as governor and U.S. senator, was widely known for his sharp wit and intellect, James offered another, more intimate perspective of his friend, who died during the early morning of April 6 at age 97.
“He represents, in my judgment, the best intentions of a South Carolina politician, or anybody else,” James, also 97, told The State on Monday, after paying his respects to Hollings, who lay in repose at the S.C. State House.
With hand outstretched on Hollings’ casket, draped in the American flag, James said, in that moment, he reflected on the tie that bound himself — a theologian and civil rights champion — to one of the country’s larger-than-life Southern Democrats.
Near the end of his term as governor, Hollings called for peace in admitting Harvey Gantt, an African American student, to then-all-white Clemson University in 1963. The move spoke volumes about Hollings’ character, James said.
“It was what was in his heart,” James said. “This man had respect for people, and they didn’t have to be rich, or white or well-respected.”
More than 200 people paid their respects to Hollings and his family at the State House Monday, where Hollings’ casket was on display — surrounded by American and S.C. flags, a large portrait of the late senator and large bouquets of white roses, lilies, mums and carnations. Hollings’ funeral is Tuesday at The Citadel, his alma mater, in his hometown of Charleston, where Gov. Henry McMaster, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., will give eulogies.
Visitors at the State House included former state lawmaker and civil rights activist James Felder, who described Hollings as “bright, bold and blunt.”
Hollings was the person who convinced Felder to return to South Carolina in 1967 after finishing law school at Howard University, he said, remembering — in the senator’s deep Charleston accent — Hollings’ persistence he return and start a voter registration drive.
“He said, ‘I bet you won’t be able to register 50,000 people,’” Felder said. “I came home, registered over 200,000 people and I never let him forget that bet.”
Hollings was in public office for more than half a century, charting a course that went through the State House, the Governor’s Mansion and on to the halls of Washington, where he served for almost 40 years.
He served as governor from 1959 to 1963, a pivotal period in the state’s civil rights history during which he encouraged state leaders to give up segregation and move the state into a new era. In 1966, he won a special election to the U.S. Senate, where he served as a junior senator to Strom Thurmond until he retired at the end of his term in January 2005.
Hollings also is known for leading a campaign to fight poverty. He went on a much-publicized “Hunger Tour” in 1968, wrote a book advocating for a national policy to combat hunger and was a chief advocate of the federal food and nutrition program for women, infants and children known as “WIC.”
He also sparked efforts to create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taking on the nickname, “the father of NOAA.”
Hollings’ retirement represented the end of an era when Democrats dominated the “Solid South.” Two Republicans, Jim DeMint and Tim Scott, succeeded Hollings.
“He was bright. He was challenging,” said Mike Fernandez, Hollings’ Senate press secretary from 1980 to 1987, who also worked on Hollings’ failed 1984 presidential bid. “He was a force to reckon with.”
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Outside of his accomplishments, friends and former colleagues said nobody had a quicker wit than Hollings.
Sometimes that wit was “rapier,” said Fernandez, recounting when ABC newsman Sam Donaldson asked the protectionist Hollings where he purchased his suit. Fernandez was in the studio, and said Donaldson was “boring in” on the senator around his trade position during the debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Hollings replied: “Sam, if you want to personalize it, I got it right down the street from where you got that wig.”
But for many mourners, including Fernandez, Hollings’ also reminded them of a bygone era in American politics.
“People can look at the gray. They can look at the 97 years of age,” he said.
“But, when you look at those things … he very much was a legislator and politician and public servant for the future.”
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