Johnson came of age at a time when his state, like much of the American South, had not yet emerged from its long benightedness. In 1948, when Hootie Johnson was a star running back at Greenwood High School, the big news in town was coming from the governor’s mansion, where Strom Thurmond was making his segregationist Presidential run on the breakaway Democratic States’ Rights Party ticket. The year before, the state had attracted national attention when thirty-one white men were tried and acquitted in the lynching of a black man named Willie Earle; what was considered remarkable at the time was that the white men had been arrested and tried at all. Politically, South Carolina was a one-party state, and Democrats did not allow blacks to participate in the Party’s primary elections until ordered to do so by a judge.
By the nineteen-sixties, South Carolina had taken a turn. The state’s voters elected a string of relatively progressive governors, McNair among them, who were charged with integrating the public schools and implementing the new federal civil-rights laws. “We had all come back from World War Two and we had seen other people from other places, and had been a part of what was going on elsewhere,” McNair recalls. “We were determined to move South Carolina forward, to try to make it better, try to overcome those hurdles without the kinds of confrontations and political activities that we’d seen in Alabama, and Mississippi, and Arkansas.”
But in 1965, when McNair was governor, Democrats in South Carolina faced a crisis of alienation from the increasingly liberal national party. The year before, Thurmond, by then a United States senator, had anticipated the future and switched parties, becoming a Republican. Barry Goldwater swept South Carolina that year, and, almost instantly, the state’s Democrats had an opposition party for the first time since Reconstruction. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was soon on the horizon, and Democrats had to reinvent themselves to survive. “The Party was just a very loose thing,” McNair says. “It wasn’t organized, it wasn’t funded.” The Party needed to contrive a way to consolidate the newly enfranchised black vote while somehow holding on to its white base, even as the state’s schools and lunch counters were being integrated.
McNair knew that none of this could be achieved without the help of the state’s unelected power elite, the business and finance class, of which Hootie Johnson was by then a prominent member. Johnson’s father had been a small-town banker, a Roosevelt man who believed that the New Deal had saved the South. The elder Johnson insisted that his boys involve themselves politically, and when Hootie was twenty-six he served a term in the state legislature. After his father died, Hootie took over the bank at the age of thirty-four, and was on his way to building it into the largest bank in the region, when McNair asked for his help. “Hootie became one of the very active, very progressive leaders of the state,” McNair says.
In 1968, after three students were killed by police at the all-black South Carolina State College, Johnson won financing from the state legislature for an undergraduate business program–making it the only school in the state where blacks could earn a business degree. Two years later, Johnson became finance chairman for the Party’s successful statewide slate, which sent three blacks to the state legislature–the first since 1902. “He became a symbol of racial healing,” says I. S. Leevy Johnson, one of those three black legislators, who is now a prominent Columbia lawyer. “And I don’t think it was done in pro-forma fashion. I think he genuinely felt that it was in the best interest of the state that the races work together.”
In 1967, Johnson helped to found the state’s first chapter of the Urban League, and was eventually invited by Vernon Jordan to join the league’s national board. Johnson’s bank became the first in the state to appoint a black, M. Maceo Nance, Jr., who was the president of S.C. State, to its board of directors.
“I think people are confusing some things about Hootie Johnson, who he really is,” Benjamin Payton, the president of Tuskegee University, says. In 1967, Payton, a South Carolina native, came home from Harvard and Yale to try to improve the fortunes of struggling Benedict College, a school founded by Baptists for freed slaves a century earlier. He called on Johnson. “I asked him for help in examining some of our financial practices and policies,” Payton says. “He brought his team in, didn’t charge us a nickel. And I mean, gave me some hard and painful reviews of what needed to be done. Didn’t sugarcoat it, didn’t patronize me. ”