COLUMBIA -- Former Gov. Robert McNair was remembered Tuesday as a compassionate statesman who "stood at the crossroads of history" and moved a segregated, agrarian South Carolina into the modern era.
"He had a choice," USC historian Walter Edgar told hundreds of mourners gathered at First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia. "He could have taken the well-worn road that looked to the past and followed the voices of division and hate. But he didn't."
Instead, Edgar said, McNair "chose to follow the road less traveled, the road of moderation and justice, the road of the future, a road that all South Carolinians could travel."
McNair, appointed to the governorship in 1965 and elected to a full term in 1966, died Saturday at the age of 83. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor less than two months ago.
A decent, caring man
McNair was mourned by the powerful and the lowly, men and women of different races and political parties who were touched by the courtly lawyer with the Lowcountry drawl.
Gov. Mark Sanford and first lady Jenny Sanford were among the mourners, along with five former governors Ernest Hollings, Jim Edwards, Richard Riley, David Beasley and Jim Hodges and the widows of two governors, Iris Campbell and Lois West.
Members of South Carolina's House, Senate and judiciary gathered in the expansive blue-and-white sanctuary, along with the staff of the McNair Law Firm, recognizable by the red roses on the lapels of their dark suits and dresses.
His longtime friend, retired AME Bishop Frederick James, described McNair as a Christian man with a "rare commitment to caring, a deep dimension of decency and a firm fidelity to his fellow man."
His administration, anchored in a decade of Southern civil and social unrest, was marked by substantial progress in race relations, education and economic development.
But he also was shadowed by great tragedy when three S.C. State students were killed in February 1968 during an angry civil rights demonstration. It was the darkest moment of his administration.
McNair defined Orangeburg and an incident in Lamar, where angry whites in 1970 overturned a school bus to protest school desegregation, as "scars on our state's conscience," Edgar recalled.
McNair's biographer Philip Grose has said it was the one thing that went wrong in an administration he believes will be regarded as being among the most progressive of the 20th century.
Elected to the S.C. House in 1950, McNair came of age when rural white Democrats controlled the state.
But he came to believe, as did his contemporary, retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, and others, that South Carolina had to shed its allegiance to the old ways, including antiquated agricultural practices and a Jim Crow system that kept blacks in subservient positions.
Elected lieutenant governor in 1962, he was appointed governor in April 1965 after then-Gov. Donald Russell resigned to take the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Olin Johnston. He was elected to a full term in 1966, hosting an inaugural ball attended by blacks and whites and beginning an administration that would be defined by its openness.
Berkeley County son
Born Robert Evander McNair on Dec. 14, 1923, he was among the last of the state's lawmakers who came up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II and returned to transform the South.
He was born in Cades in Williamsburg County, the only child of Claudia Crawford and Daniel Evander McNair. But his home, he always said, was Ballsdam Plantation in Berkeley County's Hell Hole Swamp.
The family farm, where he hunted and rode horses from childhood into old age, would remain his heart's refuge throughout his life.
As the 160-voice choir and orchestra completed its performance of "It Is Well with My Soul," McNair's flag-draped coffin was slowly borne out of the sanctuary and a bagpiper filled the air with haunting melodies.
McNair was on his final journey home to Berkeley County and his farm, where he was buried in a private family ceremony near his parents and Annie Beauford, the woman who helped raise him and managed the farm household.