COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As a line of mourners paid tribute Monday to former Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, 97-year-old Bishop Frederick Calhoun James made a special effort to honor a man he considered his dear friend.
Gingerly standing up from his wheelchair in a second-floor lobby of South Carolina’s Capitol, the African Methodist Episcopal pastor who knew Hollings for more than 50 years laid a hand on the flag-draped casket and quietly praised a leader who carefully navigated the politics of the civil rights era in the South.
“He felt that we were doing the state a disservice by not providing the best education for most of the people in South Carolina,” James told reporters, adding that Hollings wanted to ensure black citizens had opportunities. “And he said, ‘I believe there is some way, and I’m going to see if I can find it.'”
James was among the first of friends, colleagues and longtime admirers who remembered Hollings on Monday as a hard-working campaigner and representative who served South Carolina, in one way or another, for 50 years.
Hollings died April 6 at his home on Isle of Palms at age 97.
Several hundred mourners filed past the casket of the former South Carolina governor and longtime U.S. senator as it lay in repose between the House and Senate chambers. Surrounded by an honor guard, the casket lay before a smiling portrait of Hollings, bestowing his wide, trademark smile.
Running for governor in 1958, Hollings initially campaigned against desegregation, later building a national reputation as a moderate on that issue and others, ultimately pleading with the legislature to peacefully accept integration of public schools and the admission of the first black student to Clemson University.
Hollings then embarked on his long and colorful career in the Senate, from which he retired in 2005 after six terms. At that point, the Democrat had served 38 years and two months, making him the eighth longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Gov. Henry McMaster and his wife, Peggy, were the first to follow Hollings’ family past the casket, pausing to view a board showing photos dating back to Hollings’ days at The Citadel and Army service during World War II. The Republican governor recalled Hollings as a figure for whom representation of the state transcended political party at times.
“I think we ought to remember that politics is a part of life, but it’s not all of life,” McMaster told reporters. “Fritz worked hard. He campaigned hard, but he did a great job, and I’m proud to have known him. … He was among the best of us.”
McMaster is expected to speak Tuesday at Hollings’ funeral at The Citadel. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and former Vice President Joe Biden , Hollings’ longtime desk mate in the U.S. Senate, are also scheduled to deliver eulogies. On Sunday, relatives, friends and former colleagues paid their respects at a Charleston funeral home.
Democrat Dick Riley, South Carolina’s governor from 1979 to 1987, remembered Hollings as a fierce debater and loyal Democrat but someone who was also open to hearing viewpoints of those with whom he disagreed politically.
“He would be a loyal Democrat, but he would be very open to having conversation and listening to other people,” Riley said. “He was a real leader in the Senate.”
After Strom Thurmond died in 2003, Hollings was one of the last of the larger-than-life Democrats who dominated politics in the South. On Monday, former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler said his passing represented part of the end of an era.
“I was just thinking this morning about political giants that everybody knows, everybody respects — we don’t have any anymore,” Fowler said. “This is the last one. I don’t know who these other people are, and nobody else does either.”