Andrew Dys

Bessie makes sure black votes count

Years ago in the S.C. General Assembly, year in and year out, a bill would get introduced that would require pay equity for women. Same job as a man, pay the woman the same. Those bills never made it into law.

But District 49 Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, D-Rock Hill, didn't stop trying.

Yet now, Moody-Lawrence has only one more year of trying to help the women, the blacks and the poor get an equal footing in a state where those people have rarely been equal.

She knows inequality. One of just three black women in the Statehouse, she went to segregated schools and fought as a teacher and professor through integration. Then she fought as a legislator, for equal schools for all.

Moody-Lawrence's announcement that she would not seek re-election to the seat she's held since 1992 prompted this reaction from Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, one of only two other black women in the legislature:

"A tremendous loss," Cobb-Hunter said. "She has been so selfless, sacrificed so much to help others in this state. She was a champion for the people of her district and this state, many who looked to her for leadership. I was one of those people. It does make a difference to have African-American women in public service."

Moody-Lawrence shunned publicity, so she didn't always get much credit. But black people in her district, which stretches all the way west to York and south to the Chester County line, sought her help. Even more, blacks from outside her district sought her help. She was, is, the only black in the York County delegation.

Cobb-Hunter said that happens to her, too, as she hears from people around Orangeburg County and the state.

"Quite frankly, black folk are more confident coming to someone who looks like them," Cobb-Hunter said. "But it is also true for women. Women come to me from all over the state, and they come to Moody (Moody-Lawrence), too."

District 49's representation by a black woman started with the first black woman elected to the General Assembly in this state. Rock Hill's Juanita Goggins was elected in 1972. She defeated a white Republican.

Dr. Horace Goggins, a retired Rock Hill dentist who helped get his wife elected, said black people from around York County -- and other counties -- flocked to her for help with problems and concerns.

"It was a lot of fanfare, the first black woman," Horace Goggins said. "It was important. It still is. That's why what Bessie Moody-Lawrence has done for this community is so important. She has been the one people go to."

There is no denying that the reason there are districts in the legislature and wards in city and county governments and school boards is to give blacks a chance to win seats. That is a great reason.

"Before districts, it was almost impossible for a black to get elected," Goggins said.

He should know. Even when schools were segregated, Goggins in 1965 ran for school board. He ran at-large like everybody else.

He lost. But he ran.

"It was important for blacks to run then, it is important now," Goggins said.

South Carolina is at least 30 percent black. At least half female. But there are just 14 women, three of them black, in the 170-member legislature.

Representative democracies should generally represent the people they serve. This one in Columbia does not. But maybe, someday, it will.

Both Goggins and Cobb-Hunter talked of Moody-Lawrence's legacy. This woman fought for the black, the poor, the children, the women of this state, each said.

"She fought for all, everybody," Cobb-Hunter said.

It took decades and courts and the federal government to get districts that could elect black candidates. That was a fight worth fighting.

District 49 is predominantly black.

So far, three candidates, all black men, have announced an intention to seek the seat held by Moody-Lawrence. Maybe there will be others. A woman, perhaps.

Any candidate has some big shoes to fill.