NEWBERRY COUNTY — The state Democratic Party announced last week that it will be changing the name of its annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner.
Representatives from all 46 counties voted unanimously that the dinner’s moniker be changed to honor individuals other than presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson based on their connection to slavery and policies under which Native Americans were subjugated.
Jamie Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, wrote extensively about the vote on his personal Facebook page, calling the result “unexpected” and “bold.”
“The strength of this nation is its diversity, but we are weaker as a nation and as a party when we fail to appreciate and understand the journeys and the pains of those who don’t look like us, speak like us, pray like us or love like us,” reads an excerpt of Harrison’s post.
Although there is no word yet on possible options for a new name, Harrison wrote it will be something that “better reflects the current notions and values of today’s Democratic Party.”
While other states have also recently adopted the same measure, Newberry Democratic Party member Sam Martin said he had been pushing for the change for the last 20 years.
Martin, 63, cited his experience at the 1996 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner as his motivation to take on what turned out to be a decades-long fight.
Providing entertainment at that year’s dinner was a Strom Thurmond impersonator who, in an attempt to parody the Senator’s reputation, made remarks that nevertheless came across as racially insensitive.
Martin said he surveyed the room and noticed African American audience members were not laughing.
“I saw the pained looks on their faces — some anger — but a lot were just plain hurt,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘We can’t continue to do this. And as long as we have two icons (Jefferson and Jackson) with their history things like this are going to continue to happen.’”
Martin said as soon as he put forward his idea of renaming the dinner the FDR-JFK Dinner (Franklin Delano Roosevelt-John Francis Kennedy) he was met with strong resistance, even from within the Democratic Party.
Each year Martin would bring the measure to the Newberry County Democratic Convention and each year it was shot down.
He said there were periods when he wanted to quit but received encouragement from local politicians including Rep. Walt McLeod who reaffirmed his efforts were worthwhile.
Martin said the measure was eventually embraced by the county and the fight was taken to the state level.
A lifelong Democrat, Martin’s progressive roots carry back to his childhood in Clarendon County.
He grew in Summerton, home of Briggs v. Elliot, a landmark civil rights case that was later combined with several other cases and appeared before the Supreme Court as Brown v. The Board of Education.
His mother and father both died when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother and her African American housekeeper, Ethel.
“As I got older I discovered that Ethel wasn’t the maid — she was also my aunt,” Martin said. “I loved her. She raised me.”
Having up close experience with the hardships Ethel suffered because of her race gave Martin a progressive attitude that over the years has led him to take on many fights for social change, including the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome.
Despite the unanimous vote and heavy support from top Democratic officials, last week’s announcement of the change was still met by an inundation of negative reactions — to which Martin responded: “I’m real sorry to hear that but this is the right thing to do.”
Reach Carson Lambert at 803-276-0625, ext. 1868, or on Twitter @TheNBOnews.