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Harvey Gantt and John Lewis 50 Years Ago - From Confrontation to Celebration
1/23/2013 3:47:04 PM

Harvey Gantt and John Lewis
By Mike Whack

“Negro From Charleston Enrolled At Clemson” headlined the Monday, January 28, 1963 Charleston Evening Post front-page story by legendary political reporter Jack Roach. That day, at 1:33 p.m., Harvey Gantt stepped onto Clemson University soil as the school’s first African American student. Exactly seven months later at another historical confrontation, John Lewis addressed the March on Washington where a gathering of 200,000 people, heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his renowned “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Lewis was 23 years of age.

 According to Roach’s reporting, “Gantt arrived on the campus accompanied only by his attorney, Matthew Perry of Columbia. He was met at Tillman Hall, the registration site, by 150 newsmen and approximately 100 students.” Roach also reported the on-campus movements of a security force of 100 officers, including SLED agents protecting Gantt, who had just turned 20 years of age on January 14. 

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 80’s, Gantt and Lewis continued their barrier-breaking activism as civil rights leaders and arrived at seminal political offices around the same time. Gantt was elected Charlotte, North Carolina’s first African American Mayor in 1983. Georgia’s fifth congressional district voters elected Lewis to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986. 

The same year Gantt was elected mayor, the YWCA of Greater Charleston established the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award as an annual presentation during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. Gantt was named the inaugural recipient and his dad accepted the award on his son’s behalf at the January 15, 1984 MLK Tri-County Ecumenical Service.

 Today, the Gantt award is still going strong as a perpetual symbol of one historic triumph over racial segregation in South Carolina’s higher education institutions. There have been twenty–seven Gantt award recipients since 1984, all of them pillars in the cause of civil and human rights. The award is now into its second edition in the form of an 1870 antique silver trophy cup purchased in 2009 because the first silver trophy cup had no more room for engraving the names of its recipients. Donors came forward each time to guarantee the award’s future. 

This year’s Gantt award presentation at the MLK Tri-County Ecumenical Service is set for Morris Street Baptist Church, 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 27. The event will occur on the eve of Harvey Gantt’s courageous arrival on Clemson’s campus fifty years ago. Congressman Lewis will receive the Gantt award along with another acclaimed civil rights leader, Donna S. Dewitt, who is President Emeritus of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. Dewitt will be the first white woman to get the award. Lewis, a protégé of Dr. King and noted orator, will keynote the celebration distinguished by a legacy of historic confrontation of fifty years ago. 

Typically 1000 persons, including many of Charleston’s top clergy, civic and corporate leaders and civil rights supporters attend the MLK service, open to the public. Program participants include: U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn; Charleston Mayor Joe Riley; AFL-CIO State President Ken Riley; U.S. Energy Department Special Advisor Clay Middleton; Pastors Deborah Carter, Leonard Griffin, Robert Capers, Pamela Perrineau, William Swinton, Jr.; Rabbi Stephanie Alexander; and Fathers Dow Sanderson and John Zahl. The East Cooper Interdenominational Mass Choir and the Divine Strength String Ensemble will perform music which traditionally includes the great civil rights anthems Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and We Shall Overcome. The theme for the MLK Celebration is “Working for the American Dream.” 

For information visit or call YWCA 843-722-1644.

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