The life and times of Jake Knotts

Jake Knotts is one of those big-bellied Southern politicians that folks often either love or hate.

He speaks his mind, sometimes to his detriment, can upset the upper-crust crowd with the best of them and comes across as a hero to many working class folks. 

His style, as evidenced by his now infamous remark last year in which he called both President Barack Obama and then-gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley “ragheads,” can be a reminder of an uglier era of South Carolina history.

But Columbia Free Times reporter Corey Hutchins does yeoman’s work in presenting a multi-dimensional picture of Knotts in this profile. After reading it you may still not like the man or his politics, but you might understand him just a bit more.

Consider this bit about Knotts’ upbringing, which was, to put it lightly, anything but easy:

Jakie Webster rose up from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Columbia and didn’t know his real last name until he was 12. It was the 1940s, and his family was poor. So poor that often when the electricity or rent bill came due they would be forced to move. Jakie learned real young what it was like to have the sheriff come and put all of his family’s clothes and furniture out on the curb. There were times when he lived just blocks from his real father without even knowing it. Those days he attended almost every grammar school in town. It wasn’t because he was a bad boy — it was because he was poor and had to move again. In some of those schools he would pass his half-brothers in the hallways without even knowing that he shared their blood. 

When he was around 8 years old, he lived in a part of town called Black Bottom, and in Black Bottom there was an old black lady named Mammy Williams. At the end of each day, the neighborhood kids would gather on the porch of her shotgun shack where she’d have a pot of peas or beans or soup or cornbread. If Ms. Williams had food, then everybody had food. 

It was on that porch, each night, after games of hide and seek and especially on Fridays, when the neighborhood kids would meet at sunset. Ms. Williams, she was the best storyteller in the world. 

With the children gathered around her the old lady would say, “Boys and girls, look up at the sky; tell me what you see tonight.”

And 8-year-old Jakie and the rest, they’d look up at the moon and the stars and the clouds and they’d tell Ms. Williams what it was they saw. But every night Ms. Williams would tell them what they really saw was their way out of the Bottom. And the way out the Bottom was to get a good education.

“They can’t steal it from you,” she would say under the stars. “They can steal your money, they can steal your books; they can steal your bicycle. If you get an education they can’t take it away.”

Jake Webster eventually made his way out of the Bottom, but first he had to make his way to being Jake Knotts. 

It was a few days before he would be sent to a children’s home that his aunt took him fishing under a bridge now named for him and told him where he could find his real daddy.

“You’re not a Webster,” she told him down by the rocks that day. “You are a Knotts.” 

At 12 years old, the boy who was looking for his father was selling apples on the weekends and papers in the afternoons to help support his eight brothers. He shined shoes on Sunday mornings at a Catholic Church on Assembly Street. He worked all week to earn the extra 50 cents for a birth certificate from the Bureau of Statistics and then he went and found his daddy. The man lived in West Columbia and drove a cab with his name on the door, so tracking him down wasn’t too hard. 

His father must have known it was coming. 

“Come on, son,” he said when Jakie caught up with him. And then they went and saw the judge. And that’s how Jake Webster became Jake Knotts and how Jake Knotts came to Lexington County. 

“I know what family values are,” he says. “I don’t need the Republican Party trying to tell me what family values are. Because I had no family. I had to get my family and the values with my family … I wouldn’t trade the way I grew up for nothing in this world. It made me a man.”

At home the senator keeps an old report card where a teacher scratched through Webster and scrawled in the letters of his real last name.

Kudos to Hutchins for crafting an entertaining read and, more importantly, for shining a bit of light on one of South Carolina’s more complex political personalities.

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