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Published on February 25th, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff

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Luther Battiste Papers Tell Tale of Black Public Life

Pictured Luther Battiste at a Columbia City Council meeting in 1985. Photo courtesy USC

By Rodney Welch, freetimes

Speaking to a full house at the University of South Carolina’s Hollings Library Feb. 19, Luther Battiste couldn’t help but notice how his alma mater had changed since his student days.

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Luther Battiste

“If you drove through the campus and walked through Thomas Cooper Library to get to this event this evening, you saw a very diverse population,” said Battiste, who was on hand for a ceremony recognizing him for donating his papers to USC’s Political Collections. “This was certainly not the case in the fall of 1967. It would have been improbable for me to imagine that USC would have been hosting this kind of event for me tonight.”

Back then, he felt “lost in a sea of whiteness,” and the white students were hostile.

“Nothing was done to make our adjustment easy,” he said. “In the beginning, there were no black athletes and no black organizations of any kind.”

African-American students were so scarce that Battiste and his friends cheered for Wake Forest when they played USC in basketball. The Deacons at least had three black players.

But change was in the air, and Battiste — who would go on to become a well-known local attorney and 15-year member of Columbia City Council — wanted to be part of it.

“He’s one of the first African-Americans elected to the Columbia City Council in 1983,” said USC History Professor Bobby Donaldson, and was “a very active and engaged citizen long before that.”

The collection, which measures five linear feet, is divided between Battiste’s early years and his political career.

On Feb. 19, it was his youth that had his attention.

He recalled spending hours in the stacks of the library at South Carolina State College, where his mother was a librarian.

There was also the dawn of his political awareness.

“Our world was segregated, but absolutely enriching,” he said. “Marching and picketing in the Orangeburg civil rights movement made me a politically conscious person.”

Part of the archive includes notes Battiste took during a 1965 club meeting at Orangeburg High School, where he records the attendance of classmate Delano Middleton. Three years later, 17-year-old Middleton would be one of four students who would lose their lives in the Orangeburg Massacre.

It was in high school that Battiste also received some valuable negative reinforcement. He was struggling with algebra when a teacher told him, in front of the entire class, “You’ll never amount to anything other than a person who can wipe the sweat off an athlete’s brow.”

The words stuck with him forever.

“That motivated me throughout life,” he said.

He still writes out that unforgettable quote whenever he needs to give himself a push.

“Anytime I need to get my motor running, I just refresh my memory about that.”

While at USC, Battiste was inspired by his friend Harry Wright to become politically active. Battiste managed the campaign that would make Wright USC’s first African-American student body president.

After USC, Battiste attended Emory University Law School, modeling himself on the late Matthew J. Perry, the civil rights attorney who later became a federal judge.

Battiste would inherit Perry’s old law office when he came back to Columbia to work for attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, but that may have been the only perk at first. He made so little in his first year that he’d tell people he had (just barely) a five-figure salary.

He also made partner within a year, and is now the managing and founding shareholder of Johnson, Toal, and Battiste, P.A.

“My life can be summed up as one of ironies and improbabilities,” Battiste said.

Donaldson said USC already has solid collections from leading local African-American leaders like John Roy Harper, I.S. Leevy, and I.S. Leevy Johnson, and hopes to eventually include the archives of others, such as Matthew Perry, James Solomon, Ernest Finney and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

But Donaldson said the collection isn’t just limited to political notables.

“It may be a schoolteacher from Waverly,” Donaldson said. “It may be a church leader from Zion Baptist. It can be anyone of that nature, because one of the things we notice is that, like Luther, people save their material and often don’t know what the value might be to a broader audience. What I’m hoping is that this collection reminds people of how important those materials are.”

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