Over the Thanksgiving weekend, most of the daily newspapers in the state published articles noting the passing of former State Representative Earl Middleton of Orangeburg at age 88.
Most readers of the newspapers in which this column appears have not lived in the Orangeburg area, and thus may not be familiar with the name. But Earl Middleton was a friend of mine, and I wanted to take the opportunity to add a few thoughts… because Earl was truly a beacon of light for all of us.
The daily newspaper accounts covered some of the highlights from Middleton’s lifetime of achievements. They told of his four years of service to our nation during World War II as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, with rotations in the 4th Aviation Squadron, the 129th Port Battalion and overseas duty in the Pacific Theatre.
It was recalled that Middleton was born in Orangeburg on Feb. 18, 1919, the youngest of Samuel and Ella Middleton's six children. He received his elementary, high school and college education at Claflin University, graduating in 1942 with a B.A. in sociology. While at Claflin, he served as class president for each of his four years in college, and developed a life-long commitment to his Alma Mater. And he served on the board overseeing Charleston’s Middleton Plantation, where his grandfather had been a slave until the end of the Civil War.
Returning to Orangeburg in 1946, Middleton began his business, first as a barber, and later, selling insurance from his shop. Eventually, he entered the real estate business as well, and became a respected business fixture in Orangeburg for decades. In 1974 Middleton was elected to the South Carolina legislature, where he served for 10 years, becoming the county’s first black elected representative since Reconstruction.
It was there that I first met Middleton. In 1983, an acquaintance introduced me to Middleton, who was planning to run for State Senate against one of the most senior members of the Senate, the late Sen. Marshall Williams. At the time, I was still in my 20’s, and an as-yet unproven political consultant… or actually more of a political-consultant wannabe. But Middleton asked for my help in his campaign. I joined his campaign team, and embarked on one of the most memorable times of my life.
For sure, we were an odd couple: Middleton, a senior African-American Democrat from Orangeburg County, and I, a white, wet-behind-the-ears young Republican from Lexington County. But we had an immediate friendship and mutual respect. And I learned much from this gentleman.
For me personally, Earl’s campaign allowed me to break the color barrier and the party barrier. It was the first time I had directed a legislative campaign for an African- American or a Democrat. And, in so doing, I learned that we had much more in common than in contrast. Working hand in hand with Earl Middleton and hundreds and hundreds of his African-American friends and supporters gave me a perspective that most of my political colleagues never had the opportunity to gain.
Earl also gave me a bit of historical trivia that most others never knew. In the early 60’s, Middleton and two other African-Americans had been chosen as delegates to the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately, the slate of delegates which included Middleton was displaced by a second slate, and he was never seated as a delegate. A decade later, as he embarked on his trail-blazing political career, he ran as a Democrat, and became a leader of his party. But for a twist of fate, history might have been vastly different. It was then that I first realized how unimportant labels could be.
In the 1984 Senate race, another twist of fate came into play. That year, the State Senate for the first time was being elected from newly-formed single-member districts. The district in which Middleton was running against the incumbent Senator Williams had an African-American population of 51%, which favored Middleton. In the spring of that year, however, veteran Senator Marion Gressette, Chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, suddenly died. Marshall Williams was next in line as Chairman, a position he used to halt the upcoming election, and quickly redraw the lines of his district to reduce the percentage of African-American population.
In the end, we lost the race by about 600 votes. Middleton and Williams remained friends, with residents complimenting both on the positive, gentlemanly campaigns they had run.
And for me, although I was not successful in winning the race, the Earl Middleton campaign has endured as one of my proudest achievements of my life. Though we only spoke on infrequent occasions through the next two decades, we remained friends. And the lessons I learned from Earl Middleton have been an important part of my life.
Last week, South Carolina lost one of its true heroes… quiet, unassuming, respectful and dignified. But, the thousands of lives he touched along the way will assure that Earl Middleton’s beacon of light will continue to shine for many years to come.