South Carolina Political Collections enjoys a national reputation for its broad holdings documenting all aspects of government, politics, and contemporary life. We will soon open our newest and thirty-first congressional collection. John Wilson Jenrette, Jr. (b. 1936) represented South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District from 1975 to 1980. Longtime Democratic Party leader Don Fowler credited Jenrette for his “very courageous stand against one of the most long-lasting evils in American society – racism and the habit of denying African-Americans the right to vote. He was the first white S.C. politician who took that issue head-on and sought their vote.” The progressive and charismatic legislator’s career was derailed when he was implicated in the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation into government corruption. He ultimately was convicted of bribery and served thirteen months of a two-year sentence.
Jenrette’s collection consists of over six feet of material, chiefly 1972 to 1980, documenting his service in Congress, his campaigns for office, and his life outside of Congress. We expect to receive more materials in the coming months. The richest segment of the collection is formed by the regular newsletters sent by the congressman to his constituents to inform them about major issues confronting Congress and particularly matters of concern to Jenrette and his District. News clippings form the bulk of the collection and document both Jenrette’s rise to prominence and his fall from grace.
The Loris, SC, native graduated from Wofford College in 1958 and received his law degree from USC in 1962. While pursuing the latter, he was employed as a page in the South Carolina Senate and then as a clerk for the Finance Committee. In 1961, he also served as President of the USC Student Bar Association. Upon graduation, Jenrette opened a one-man law firm in North Myrtle Beach. The Democrat won a seat in the South Carolina House in 1964 and, in 1972, he sought a seat in Congress. A vigorous campaign allowed him to defeat seventeen-term incumbent John L. McMillan in a hotly contested primary. Probably hurt by the divisive nature of that primary, Jenrette was then defeated in the general election by Republican Ed Young. Energized by his win over McMillan, Jenrette sought the seat again in 1974 and defeated Young.
Jenrette entered Congress as part of the “Watergate class” — ninety-one freshmen sent to Washington in the wake of the Nixon scandal. Among Jenrette’s fellow freshmen were South Carolinians Butler Derrick and Ken Holland and others who would gain prominence in Congress — Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Charles Grassley, Tom Harkin, Henry Hyde, Paul Simon, Paul Tsongas and Henry Waxman. Even in such august company, Jenrette stood out and became the first freshman elected to serve in the House Whip organization.
In Congress, Jenrette took a prominent stance against racism, particularly efforts to suppress the African American vote. He helped South Carolina native Ron McNair become an astronaut; founded and chaired the Travel and Tourism Caucus, a vital industry in South Carolina; and worked to secure cost-of-living raises for recipients of Social Security, to promote solar energy, and to better fund public education.
South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District is remarkably well documented. SCPC holds the papers of representatives Allard Gasque, John L. McMillan, Jenrette, Robin Tallon and its current representative, Jim Clyburn. These papers cover all but two sessions of Congress, 1923 to date. During the missing four years, the District was represented by Ed Young and John Napier, both of whom placed their papers at Clemson. Also, as part of our efforts to document the rise of the Republican Party in South Carolina, SCPC conducted a particularly rich oral history with Napier, which is available to study here. One has to wonder if there is a better documented Congressional District in America.
Some may criticize us for preserving Mr. Jenrette’s papers. But archivists must strive to document all of history. John Jenrette occupied a position of importance and accomplished some good for the people of his District, state and nation. Perhaps more important, preserving his papers ensures the fullness of the archival record of the people of South Carolina’s 6th District. We look forward to opening the collection to study.