Tucked away in a shaded corner of the South Carolina State House grounds is a statue of James “Jimmy” Byrnes, one of South Carolina’s great public servants. At various times, Byrnes served as Solicitor (South Carolinian for district attorney), Congressman, Senator, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, “Assistant President”, Secretary of State under Harry Truman,and, finally, in his 70s, Governor of South Carolina.
Byrnes was born in Charleston in 1882 and began as a newspaper editor in Aiken, SC. From 1902-10 he served as the Solicitor for the Second Circuit before his election to Congress in 1910. Byrnes served in the House of Representatives until 1924 when he lost a race for the U.S. Senate. Six years later, he won election to the Senate and remained there until 1941.
As a result of an agreement with President Franklin Roosevelt, Byrnes was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941. Byrnes was probably at his unhappiest during his public career during this period and he resigned after approximately 18 months. Roosevelt then appointed Byrnes as Director of Economic Stabilization and Director of War Mobilization, positions where he became known as the "Assistant President."
In 1944, Byrnes was a leading candidate for Roosevelt’s Vice-President, a position that went to Harry Truman. Byrnes briefly left public life only to return as an advisor and Secretary of State to Truman and remained so until 1947.
Byrnes returned to South Carolina practicing law in Spartanburg when, in 1950, at the age of 68, he ran for and won his race for Governor of South Carolina. While he was governor, a group of African-American parents filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Charleston asking for transportation to school for their children (school districts at the time did not provide school buses for African-American children) as the case, known as Briggs v. Elliott, made its way through the Federal Courts, it was folded in with several others and is known today as Brown v. Board of Education, the school desegregation case of 1954.
Byrnes left public office in 1955 and retired to Columbia. In his retirement, he was chair of the Building and Grounds of Trinity Episcopal Church (now Trinity Episcopal Cathedral) While Byrnes was in that position, someone allegedly asked him, “Governor, you have had such an illustrious career dealing with FDR, Truman, Churchill and Stalin. Could anything be more difficult than that?” “Yes,” Byrnes replied, “the women of Trinity.” Byrnes died in 1972. He and his wife Maude are buried in the Trinity Cathedral Graveyard in Columbia.
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