By Moses Brown
Attorney John Roy Harper was a trailblazing South Carolina civil rights attorney and justice activist. Many of Harper’s notable achievements in dismantling South Carolina’s legally sanctioned racism and segregated voting system remain largely unsung and forgotten. Harper’s historic, landmark legal victories changed the entire legal and political landscape of voting rights in South Carolina and gave voice to disenfranchised African Americans. As South Carolina approaches one of the most important presidential and senate elections this year, it is particularly relevant that Harper’s civil rights and community contributions be recognized, appreciated, and brought to light.
Mather Academy and Fisk University
Harper was born in Greenwood, South Carolina in 1939. His family relocated to Camden, S.C. where he attended Mather Academy, a Methodist-affiliated, private African American boarding school. At the age of 14, Harper scored remarkably high on a Ford Foundation college entrance examination and was awarded a scholarship to Fisk University. Harper graduated from Fisk in 1959 with an A.B. in history.
Harvard University and Returning to Columbia, S.C.
Harper’s high score on the law school admission examination enabled him to be admitted to Harvard University at the age of 20. Harper indicated he was not prepared to enter law school at such a young age and left Harvard after his first year. He then worked in executive positions for various companies prior to enlisting in the United States Army. Harper had a burning desire to return to the racially segregated south to fight segregated, institutionalized racist systems of injustice that were economically and socially dehumanizing to African Americans and moved to Columbia, S.C. in 1968.
The University of South Carolina’s Law Review
Harper was admitted to the University of South Carolina’s Law School. His outstanding academic performance enabled him to become the first African American to serve on the University of South Carolina’s Law School’s prestigious South Carolina Law Review. In 1970, Harper passed the South Carolina Bar and was admitted to practice law in 1971.
Groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court Civil Rights Cases
From 1971 to 1973 Harper was employed as an attorney for Charlotte, N.C.’s Chambers Law Firm specializing in civil rights litigation. From 1970 to 1971, Harper and other Chambers Law Firm attorneys won the groundbreaking United States Supreme Courts cases of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) and Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971). The Swann case held that school busing was an appropriate remedy to resolve racial imbalance in public schools to ensure that public schools would be integrated. The Griggs case held that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from using employment selection tests and criteria that did not reasonably measure job performance even if there was no intent to racially discriminate.
The United Citizens Party
In 1971, Harper established his Columbia, S.C. law practice on Washington Street above the Victory Savings Bank, the first African American bank in Columbia. Iconic, outspoken civil rights activist Modjeska Simpkins often referred indigent clients’ civil rights cases to Harper.
Prior to 1970, no African Americans served on the Columbia City Council, South Carolina House of Representatives, and the South Carolina State Senate. Within the context of African American taxation without representation, racial discrimination, and voter suppression, the United Citizens Party (UCP) was founded by Harper Attorney James Felder, Thomas Broadwater, James E. Clyburn, Lawrence Toliver, outspoken civil rights icon Modjeska Simkins, and others.
In 1970, the aggressive efforts of the UCP, NAACP and the South Carolina Voter Education Project resulted in over 200,000 registered African American voters. Despite the overwhelming number of African American voters, there were no African Americans who served in the South Carolina General Assembly since the Reconstruction Era.
Harper’s aggressive UCP leadership encouraged the UCP to use the voting strategy process of “electoral fusion.” This is a process that allows two or more political parties such as Democrats, Republicans, and the UCP to list the same candidates on a voting ballot and pool or combine votes for a candidate. Electoral fusion also allows minor political parties such as the UCP to impact and influence election results. From 1970 to 1972, the electoral fusion process made the UCP one of the most powerful political third parties in South Carolina. Columbia Attorney Thomas Broadwater ran for governor in 1970 as a UCP candidate but was defeated. The UCP became a threat to SC’s well established predominantly white Democratic Party forcing the Democratic Party to support three African American candidates who were ultimately elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. These elected officials were Columbia attorneys James Felder, I.S. Leevy Johnson and Charleston, S.C. funeral home owner Herbert Fielding.
Reapportioning South Carolina’s General Assembly
Prior to 1973, South Carolina used the at-large system of electing officials. This device prevented more than three African Americans from being elected to the South Carolina General Assembly. In dismantling South Carolina’s at-large voting system, then NAACP Attorney Mathew Perry with the assistance of Harper, won the case of Stevenson v. West in the United States Supreme Court. This reapportionment case significantly increased African American representation in the S.C. House of Representatives resulting in the election of Democratic attorney Thomas Broadwater to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1980 and 1982. In 1983, well known Democrat and iconic civil rights activist Reverend I.D. Newman became South Carolina’s first African American senator. House of Representative member, Kay Patterson replaced Reverend Newman and served in the S.C. Senate until 2008.
In 1977, Harper was elected to the Richland County Council and served until 1978. As expected, Harper served on the Richland County Council as a valiant change agent who spearheaded a significant increase in the number of county positions held by African Americans.
In 1987, African Americans were gradually being elected to political offices although they still had to run in at-large races for city and county positions. Relying on the case of Stevenson v. West, Harper as NAACP’s General Counsel, along other prominent Columbia South Carolina justice warriors devised a legal strategy that created hundreds of single-member districts throughout South Carolina that enabled African Americans and women to win city, county, and school board elections.
Election of South Carolina’s First Congressman After Reconstruction
The 1990 census revealed that South Carolina’s African American voting population had significantly increased. Redistricting South Carolina into more single member districts was again needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and ensure African Americans could equally participate in elections without their votes being diluted, malapportioned or suppressed. South Carolina also failed to enact new congressional and state legislative redistricting plans that complied with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1991, most Republican members of the South Carolina General Assembly were involved in a strategy to prove additional single member redistricting was not needed. In 1992, persistent federal court litigation by Harper and the Statewide Reapportionment Advisory Committee in the federal district court case Reapportionment Advisory Committee v. Theodore created a new South Carolina congressional district. In 1993, this newly created district resulted in the election of Congressman James Clyburn, a Florence native, and South Carolina’s first African American congressman since the Reconstruction Era.
Community Servant and Activist
Harper’s legacy as a community servant complimented his numerous legal wins and losses. Harper’s extraordinary community service included being founding chairman of the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a nonprofit adult education and job training center. From 1970 to 1974 Harper served as second vice-president of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations. He also served as the commissioner of the Midlands Human Resources Development Commission from 1977 to 1980.
“Knowledge is the Key to Unity and Unity is the Key to Liberation and Progress”
Harper firmly believed “knowledge is the key to unity and unity is the key to liberation and progress.” His life exemplified this belief as well as a resolute, unwavering passion for liberty and justice for all. In 2003, Harper died at the age of 63 from lung cancer. If Harper were alive today, he would be fighting the good fight against voter suppression, police brutality, and societal injustices. John Roy Harper’s monumental civil rights, voting rights, and human rights legacy should never be forgotten.