HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 31, 2007
From a Writer's Notebook: Thoughts at a Graduation

John R. Guthrie


Littlejohn Coliseum
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina
Thursday, 20 December, 2007

A powerhouse version of Pomp and Circumstance reverberated through the coliseum as the chancellor, the university president and the faculty marched in in all their medieval pomp and splendor, sleeves weighted with more doctoral chevrons than one is likely to see in one place anytime soon. The second of my three sons, Luke, was among the thousand plus graduates that followed. Such things make one’s eyes mist up.

My youngest son, 13-year-old Alexi and I, happened to sit next to an elderly black man, an octogenarian. He was dressed in his Sunday best, the rich patois of rural South Carolina making his speech as mellow as Palmetto State sunshine.

“My granddaughter’s graduating,” he said. When the graduating student who gave the invocation was recognized and stood to speak, he said, “That’s my granddaughter,” beaming as he looked toward me to see my reaction. I was suitably impressed, applauded and smiled. “I know you must be proud!”  He paused, reflective for a moment, then nodded and said, succinctly and softly enough, “It makes me happy.”

This particular happiness for a black man was a long time coming in S.C. Yet the current diversity of the graduates; Asian, Hispanic, and black as well as Caucasian, is a joy to see. Also, in the school of engineering, 10% of the graduates are female; up from 2% nationwide not so many years ago. I lean forward, squinting to make out my son.

Clemson is a land grant state university with 17,000 students, an institution well on its way toward its goal of becoming one of the nation’s top 20 state universities by 2011. Its position has been enhanced by the presence of a number of major industries, among them BMW, Michelin, and Timken, that add to the tax base and that also contributed generously to endowed chairs and research programs.

The land Clemson stands on was once a plantation, Fort Hill, owned by John C. Calhoun. He was Vice-President of the U.S. under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Then he became a U.S. Senator. He’s been described as "the Hamlet and the fire-eater of the southern cause." He made a speech to the U.S. Congress addressing his horror of black male rapists, never mind that rape in my southland was generally a crime perpetrated against black women by white males. Calhoun concluded that he would rather see his three daughters “killed by a tiger or a bear” than for one of them to report to him that she had “been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend." What his daughters thought about that dismal choice, history does not tell us.

Such speeches were once the stock-in-trade of southern officials. There was also a misogynistic subtext in such utterances by South Carolina pols once the war was lost. As has been the case with every war, veterans came home to women who had become more independent. “Steel magnolias” is an apt description of many Southern women of that era—and their descendants today. Proto-feminism in conjunction with priapic black males was more than all but the most stalwart of Confederate men’s hearts could endure.

Fort Hill Plantation was willed to Calhoun’s son-in-law, Thomas Green Clemson, who in turn donated the plantation and a considerable sum of money to the state for an educational institution. He was greatly influenced in this public-spirited decision by “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a former U.S. Senator and vigorous defender of slavery who used phrasing quite similar to the Calhoun quote above.  

The graduation was a reminder that even in problems as complex as racial ones, in the diversity of the graduates that day there was remarkable accomplishment, significant progress, infinite potential, and redemptive hope. Though the racial problems and related economic disparity in S.C. and elsewhere are by no means banished, each of the young people walking across the dais to receive their degree was living testimony to positive change, this thanks to people of courage and good will of all races.     

One of numerous doctoral candidates, a young black woman and her dissertation advisor, walked across the stage where she was hooded and received her doctoral degree. In 1963, Harvey B. Gantt was the first black admitted to Clemson. He graduated with honors in architecture, then earned a masters in city planning from MIT. He has a stellar record in public service to include being the mayor of Charlotte, N.C. He also conducted two campaigns, regrettably unsuccessful, for U.S. senate against the curmudgeonly Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.). Before his very necessary funeral in 2005, Sen. Helms was famous for such utterances as, “Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school classes that teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.” I spot Luke in the long line of graduates, recalling that my graduate has shown no tendency toward cannibalism to date, nor has he embraced other malfeasances. Apparently Jesse Helms’s children went to a different grammar school than mine. Or perhaps his simply were twisted due to a dysfunctional family life. I do not know.  
 
The considerable number of masters degree candidates were receiving their degrees: young people bursting with talent. Among the plethora of disciplines, there was  English, History, Aerospace studies, Early Childhood Education, Biological Engineering, Biochemistry, Mathematics, Microbiology and Veterinary Science; useful things that are the heart and soul of an industrialized and civilized society.

Finally some 900 plus baccalaureate candidates begin their approach to the dais. Luke crossed the stage as I peer intently. His brother and I applaud as if for the second coming. Luke’s consistently been conscientious, possessed of a sense of humor and an inquiring intellect as well as being good hearted. When he was 5, he was asked by a Southern Baptist minister what he would do if he were tempted by the devil. He replied earnestly and without hesitation, “I would call him a poop fart 23,000 times.” This still seems to me a pretty good way of dealing with Southern Baptist devils.

South Carolina is where I began my life’s journey. It will always be in a way that no other place can be that particular state of mind and heart which was and in some sense is home. It is a uniquely beautiful state, ranging from the mountainous Northeast corner where the Chatooga River (where the movie Deliverance was filmed) foams and froths its way toward the sea. Across the forested piedmont, the sand hills and coastal plains of this small state, the rolling surf beats against the beaches and barrier islands of the Carolina coast. There upwards of 40% of the forebears of blacks living in the United States came off slave ships of the Middle Passage to be sequestered for a time at the quarantine station of S.C.’s Sullivan’s Island.  Following the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, our legislature and our white leadership in general conspired with brutal cunning to reinstitute and maintain conditions as close to slavery as possible for black South Carolinians.

As the elderly black man’s granddaughter did a fine job of rendering an invocation, I wondered: What would Mr. Clemson, he whose generosity founded the university, a public–spirited man of considerable brilliance yet who was an advocate of slavery and the Confederate cause, think of this? What would his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun with his vituperative racism have to say about what was going on where once the slaves of his Fort Hill Plantation labored? How would Pitchfork Ben Tillman with his rabid rhetoric perceive it all?

In my imagination, Thomas Clemson, arguably the brightest of them all, would adjust quickly despite some reservations, to current realities. Calhoun and Tillman? They were, above all, politicians. Particularly if running for public office again, they would trim their sails to prevailing winds just as Strom Thurmond did in his time. Strom realized that black citizens were going to vote despite his efforts to the contrary and sought their support. And after all, he only believed in segregation outside the bedroom anyway. We might find that prominent 19th Century racists, the smarter ones anyway, were racists like Sen. Larry Craig and other GOP gays are homophobes; it’s a matter of convenience, a way of appealing to that which is most base among a fearful electorate. It’s engaging to think we might see, as the warm breezes of reason blew down South and the sunshine of the days was of just the right duration, the reincarnated John C. Calhoun and Pitchfork Ben Tillman metamorphose like emergent butterflies. They just might abandon their racist rhetoric, leaving it behind like the deserted chrysalis that is a dead remnant of darker days gone by.


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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