South Carolina is characterized by great beauty and culture. It also has areas of abject poverty. Its leaders have long worked to improve standards of living across the state, chiefly through recruiting industry and innovative educational programing. SCPC donors Fritz Hollings and John West did all that but also worked assiduously to address hunger and poverty. West recalled in his oral history interview for SCPC that Hollings’ famous Hunger Tours of 1968 and 1969 brought public recognition to a problem that most people preferred to ignore or to sweep under the rug. You know, people, particularly those who are reasonably affluent, don’t want to even imagine that there are people in our society, and close by, who don’t have enough to eat. And so they just don’t look at it, don’t recognize it.
Governor West (1971-1975) took his first ‘Poverty Tour’ shortly after taking office. It was facilitated by his young staffer Jim Clyburn. Clyburn and Hollings accompanied West to McColl and Charleston to view firsthand the often-wretched housing in which South Carolina’s poorest lived. Later, in his 1972 State of the State address, West called for action to help families living in substandard housing – and there were some 200,000 such units.
He conducted multiple tours over the course of his administration to inform his concern over the poor and the disadvantaged, and he acted to address their needs. One legacy of his leadership is the creation of two state agencies to address poverty and discrimination – the State Housing Authority and the Human Affairs Commission. Another was his ‘Privy Project.’ West showed humor but also pride in speaking about the modular bathroom that could simply and economically provide indoor plumbing for the many dwellings across South Carolina that still lacked this amenity. Some of his staff referred to the project as, “John’s Johns.” The self-contained unit contained a bathtub, toilet, lavatory, hot water heater and overhead heater. It could be added to any structurally sound home and simply required a hole to be cut to create a doorway, and some simple plumbing and electrical work. In April 1973, West testified before a U. S. Senate committee studying the impact of President Richard Nixon’s housing moratorium. He told the committee that the states should take more responsibility for the housing needs of the poor and the federal government should help. He boasted of the “snap-on” bathrooms which cost only $1,000 and helped cure one of the worst problems – the lack of indoor plumbing.
West also used his ‘Reports’ to the people, published in newspapers across the state, to publicize the needs of the poor. He once wrote, “I reject the seemingly popular opinion that ignorance, illiteracy and poverty are conditions indigenous to any single race of people.”
It takes real leadership to take on hard problems and Hollings and West revealed their heart and intelligence in their efforts to help our most needy citizens.
~ contributed by Herb Hartsook