Governor, Senator, Friend – Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings Dies at 97

Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings

By Barney Blakeney

Ernest F. Hollings has been described as an extremely intelligent man outstanding in both mental and physical stature, a man who made mistakes, but was wise enough to admit and amend them. At a time when Black political power first began to emerge in the 20th century, Hollings was among the gatekeepers who allowed it to flourish. As governor of South Carolina and later a U.S. Senator, Blacks identified Hollings as a friend. He died April 6. He was 97.

Hollings was a Charleston native, Citadel graduate and Democrat. He enrolled in The Citadel at age 16 and after graduating in 1942 joined the Army. He saw action in North Africa and France winning seven combat medals while rising to the rank of captain. After the war he returned to Charleston, got married, and enrolled in the University of South Carolina law school.

After graduating law school in 1948, Hollings was elected was elected to the S.C. Legislature as a member of the House of Representatives. Known for his sharp mind he rose through the ranks of the general assembly. At 29, he was elected Speaker of the House and in 1954 he was elected lieutenant governor. He became governor four years later at the age of 36.

Political consultant and family friend Bud Ferillo said as a product of the Jim Crow south, Hollings was on the wrong side of the race issue in his early political career and chose to support the separate but equal doctrine Jim Crow represented. He opposed the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. He later toured the infamous ‘Corridor of Shame’ and saw firsthand that separate indeed was not equal. Hollings introduced legislation to create the state’s first sales tax that would be used to fund better quality education for Black students.

As Governor, Hollings’ liberal moral views helped the state avoid much of the violence experienced in many southern states. While in the legislature he already had written anti-lynching laws. In 1963 he oversaw Harvey Gantt’s peaceful integration of Clemson University. He created the state’s multi-county technical school system. Ferillo said by the time Hollings got the U.S. Senate in 1966 he had a much broader view of the problems facing the nation.

Ferillo, who previously worked locally in the civil rights movement, introduced Hollings to prominent civil rights and political figures such as Esau Jenkins, Herbert Fielding, Robert Woods, McKinley Washington and James Clyburn. Hollings learned of the work being done by people such as Rev. Willis Goodwin and Father Henry Grant.

A tour of the Charleston sea islands made him aware of the poverty that continued to exist. He documented his findings in the 1970 book “The Case Against Hunger” and worked to create the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to feed poor pregnant women. In 1987, Hollings helped secure federal funding to create the oncology arm of the Medical University of South Carolina. The research center was formally established in 1993 and named in his honor.

“Hollings was a guy with ideas before his time. He was a great governor and a great senator,” said former S.C. Sen. McKinley Washington. “He believed in equality and did a great job for rural communities. He helped get water and health for Hollywood – stuff we enjoy today. He was a friend to the poor and introduced legislation to prove it,” Washington said.

To pay last respects, visitation will be from 3-6 p.m. April 14 at James A. McAlister Funerals and Cremation in Charleston. Hollings will lie in repose from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 15 at the Statehouse in Columbia. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. April 16 in the Summerall Chapel at The Citadel in Charleston.

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