Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.
Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”
Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.
He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.
In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.
The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.
The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.
“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.
Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.
“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”
The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task.
“Mr. Blease was nominated for governor by a primary of the Democrats. He was elected governor, not by ‘his friends’ but by the Democrats of South Carolina, including his ‘enemies,’ or non-supporters in the primary, who accepted the result of the primary in good faith, who did not oppose him in the November election and who aided in his election by their votes,” the paper stated in an editorial.
“The plain English of the governor’s letter is that he repudiates obligation to the party which elected him and proclaims an allegiance to his supporters in the nominating primary, to the disparagement of the rights of all other Democrats to have a voice in the affairs of the State,” the paper added. “This policy he will carry to the limits of packing the judiciary with his political friends, so far as he can. That is what he says. He is at least to be commended for his candor.”
Yes, Blease was never short on candor, even if he lacked prudence, common sense and compassion.
This was the same individual who, in his inaugural address in January 1911, stated, “I am opposed to white people’s taxes being used to educate negroes,” adding that he also was opposed to white convicts being placed in the same labor camps as black convicts and that he believed that “a governor would be justified in granting a pardon to a white man who is thus treated, …”
In the same address, Blease urged the re-institution of public executions, particularly those of blacks.
“I respectfully recommend that you amend the present law so as to make executions for the crime of rape, or assault with intent to ravish, public, as I believe this will bring about more satisfactory results – allowing others, and particularly those of the younger generation of that race from which most of these culprits come, to have a full view of the punishments meted out.”
Blease added, “The pure-blooded Caucasian will always defend the virtue of our women, no matter what the cost. If rape is committed, death must follow.”
And while blacks were his primary target, Blease also said the he would pardon any man or mob who killed a doctor who had given a physical examination to a young girl, according to Lynn Salsi and Margaret Sims in their work, “Columbia: History of a Southern Capital.”
Jim Crow was, no doubt, a society wide effort, but its efficacy was driven by men like Blease and Tillman. Their legacy lives on in the cultural dysfunction we continue to experience today.