Andrew Dys

Bessie Moody-Lawrence, retired Rock Hill lawmaker, dies at 71

“The Velvet Hammer” has ceased pounding.

Bessie Moody-Lawrence of Rock Hill – only the second black woman ever elected to the General Assembly from York County – died late Tuesday night. She was 71.

She has left a legacy of wrongs righted by her actions, children helped by her deeds, and a state helped by the courage and guts of the legislator nicknamed “The Velvet Hammer” for her quiet but tough advocacy for children and the poor.

The echoes of fighting for those South Carolinians who carried no hammer of their own will last forever because of what Moody-Lawrence did in her life.

The retired Winthrop education professor and teacher died at home from brain cancer, said her daughter, Leah Moody, a Rock Hill lawyer and University of South Carolina trustee.

Moody-Lawrence was tough and tender – she went into politics because health care for retirees such as her mother was sorely lacking – right to the end, her daughter said.

“She was peaceful, not in pain, and right to the end she cared about her family and others before herself,” Moody said. “Right to the end, she would not complain, saying what she said so often when problems needed solutions: ‘Are you going to cry about it, or are you going to do something about it?’ ”

A Democrat, Moody-Lawrence was elected to represent S.C. House District 49 in 1992 and won eight terms before deciding not to run in 2008 after overcoming breast cancer.

Moody-Lawrence gained a reputation during her Statehouse tenure as a feisty proponent of programs that would benefit public education, children, the availability of affordable health care and equality for all people.

She called herself a proud member of the Legislative Black Caucus, but voted her own mind always, doing what she thought was right for the people, not necessarily right for politics. She wanted women to have equal pay for equal work, and all kids to have access to education.

Moody-Lawrence, the daughter of a legendary teacher, believed all people should get a fair shot.

And she was tough.

When school vouchers gained support from some Republicans and out-of-state financiers who pumped millions of dollars into the state, Moody-Lawrence fought back by stating, over and over, that public education for all children would be harmed irrevocably.

Moody-Lawrence was the lone black member of the York County legislative delegation during her entire tenure, but she eschewed being called a “black politician” – preferring instead to be known as a person who believed in the power of education to make the lives of all people better.

Her family and extended family – all with roots in Chester and the Brainerd Institute that for decades was a bastion of education for black students – includes a breadth of professionals in law, medicine, the arts and more.

Two nieces – Phylicia Ayers-Allen Rashad who starred in “The Cosby Show;” and Debbie Allen, the actress-dancer-choreographer who starred in “Fame” – had great success in television and are iconic American performers with classical educations.

“She was a champion of education all her life, and challenged South Carolina to educate everyone, every child,” said Vivian Ayers of Chester, Moody-Lawrence’s sister and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, scholar and author. “Whatever she was doing, she was hammering away at education, with that soft touch that comes from being an experienced and dedicated educator.

“It does not surprise me that she ended up with the moniker ‘The Velvet Hammer.’ ”

A generation of teachers trained under Moody-Lawrence in the education department at Winthrop University. She was one of the first black professors to gain tenure and is the only Winthrop professor to have served in the General Assembly.

After election to the House as one of just four black women at the time, Moody-Lawrence demanded that all people in the Legislature accept her as an equal, pounding her fist one time on a table and saying, “I will not be disrespected!”

She was so tough and dedicated that in 2007, after winning her final election, she was administered the oath of office at a rehabilitation center while sitting in a wheelchair.

Former state Rep. Herb Kirsh, the Clover Democrat who served with Moody-Lawrence during her entire tenure in the Legislature, officiated at that oath service.

“She wanted to help people, children especially, and she did as much as she could as long as she could,” Kirsh said. “She was unassuming, quiet, but tough when she wanted to be.”

In the last address she ever gave in the House in 2008, requiring a walker to get to the lectern, Moody-Lawrence was given a standing ovation by politicians of both parties after she told the membership:

“Improve the human condition. Do it for ordinary people. Every nationality. Rich and poor. Young and old. Black and white. Make life better for that little boy or girl, barefooted today, so they can be contributors to society – not fodder for prisons.”

State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, who succeeded Moody-Lawrence in the District 49 seat and whose family grew up with Moody-Lawrence in Chester, ran against her in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Once he got into office, though, after Moody-Lawrence retired, King often sought political advice from Moody-Lawrence – the woman who carried on the legacy of Juanita Goggins and Sam Foster in the district that remains the only black-held seat in York County.

“She was a trailblazer,” King said. “A phenomenal woman who cared about the least in our state before herself. I am honored to carry on her legacy, one which she often said was about the people we serve, not ourselves.”

State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who sat next to Moody-Lawrence for a decade in the House, described his peer and fellow legislator from the other side of the political aisle as “a great, great lady who always cared more about the people she served than herself.”

“Bessie worked quietly most of the time, but she never wavered in her commitment to people,” said Simrill, who was first elected to the House the same year as Moody-Lawrence. “But if anyone crossed her, they found out that ‘The Velvet Hammer’ was a name that she had earned.”

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday. Moody-Lawrence had three children: Leah, Katrina, and Lindberg Jr. Her first husband, legendary basketball coach at Northwestern High School Lindberg Moody Sr., died in a car crash in 1980. Her second husband, Earl Lawrence, died in 2008.

The S.C. House will honor Moody-Lawrence’s legacy when it returns to session in January, King and Simrill said.

Even as many in the state pause to reflect on Moody-Lawrence’s achievements, her daughter urged everyone to honor one of the last requests her mother made: Celebrate her life and act to make the state better for all.

“Her life was a celebration, a testament to action and courage and strength and caring about the next generation,” Leah Moody said. “She was an inspiration to me and to so many young people. She made her state a better place for all.”