Olin Johnston was a highly respected politician in the upstate of South Carolina in the first half of the twentieth century. Known as the "cotton mill boy," for his personal experience working in the textile industry, Johnston was the man of the people—or at least the white laborers. Through the Great Depression and World War II, his New Deal liberalism brought him popularity in the Democratic party. During his 42 year career in politics, Olin Johnston fought for and achieved many reform policies in South Carolina.
Born on November 18, 1896, near Honea Path, South Carolina, Olin Dewitt Talmadge Johnston was raised on a small farm. His parents were tenant farmers as well as textile mill laborers. Growing up, Johnston attended the public schools in Anderson County, but by the time he was nine years old, he was also working in the mills to help support his family. He was finally able to receive the equivalent of a high school diploma when he graduated with honors from Spartanburg's Textile Industrial Institute.
At the age of 19, Olin began his college career at Wofford College. However, after a year and a half, he enlisted in the U.S. Army for the Great War. He served as a sergeant under General Douglas MacArthur in the famous "Rainbow Division." In 1919, he received a citation of merit for bravery and was honorably discharged. Wasting no time, he returned to Wofford College and graduated two years later. During his time at college, however, Johnston had to work his way through. His family being so poor, his mother regretfully could only offer him $45 to start off with. Olin often held three jobs while going to class, and during the summers he would sometimes work two ten-hour shifts a day at the mills to save money.
The next three years of his life brought many milestones into Johnston's path. He served his first term in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1923-1924. It was said that he had received the biggest vote his county had ever seen (The Greenville News; Sept. 12, 1934; p.1). He also earned both an MA in rural economy and the LLB from the University of South Carolina—while serving in the House. And to finish the year, he married Gladys Elizabeth Atkinson in December 1924.
Johnston then went on to serve again in the State House of Representatives for two terms. And after losing the race for governor in 1930 (amidst an unconfirmed protest of election fraud), he ran again four years later, defeating a more experienced candidate. Though Johnston lost his next two campaigns for the U.S. Senate, he did become governor again in 1942. And trying once again for the Senate, Johnston ran, winning his first seat in 1944—and every successive term through 1962. In fact, he appeared to gain popularity as time went on. In his last election, he won in 45 out of South Carolina's 46 counties. Therefore, the last twenty years of Johnston's life were spent serving as a Democratic Senator. He died in 1965 at the age of 68.
"Politically, his ascent was . . . meteoric" (The Greenville News; Sept. 12, 1934; p.1). Olin Johnston took no time at all getting involved in the political world in the 1920's. He once recalled,
And it was not much longer, relatively, before he did start getting involved. He was only 26 when he served that first term in the state's House of Representatives.
However, Johnston's motivation as a boy was somewhat prophetic. When he ran for governor in 1934, the "more experienced candidate" that he came up against was none other than Coleman L. Blease. Johnston said it was ironic that "when I finally got to be Governor it was Blease I had to beat. Strange things happen in politics" (Huss 28). Both Democrats, the two came face to face in the state's primary. In the single-party state, the primary race basically equaled election. Therefore, upon winning the Democratic nomination in September, the final outcome of the race was determined.
Both Blease and Johnston were hailed as the friend of the mill workers. That had always been Blease's platform, and he had always succeeded in winning the laborers' support. Now, though, Johnston, the "cotton mill boy," had the same objective but by different means. Blease had believed in letting the mill workers "manage their own affairs." They did not want an active government forcing itself in their lives; they wanted to be left alone. But by 1934, the New Deal was changing the laborers' opinion. They began wanting the more proactive government and its programs. Johnston represented this new "New Deal liberalism," so in the 1934 gubernatorial race, he had a decisive victory over Blease.
Johnston's political stands did reflect what the mill workers were seeking. Having been involved in such labor as a young boy, he knew their struggles firsthand. He believed in tax exemptions for small houses and farms, an increase in minimum wage, and a 40-hour workweek for textile laborers. He fought for and achieved a seven-month state-financed school term, allowing for better education among the lower classes.
But perhaps one of the more important issues to him was that of the State Highway Department and its being paid for by state bonds. Going back to one of his terms in the State House, when the bill for the current highway program was passed, Johnston had become strongly opposed to the system. As representative of rural people, who did not generally utilize the highway, he wanted to reform the program. In a message to the General Assembly during his first term as Governor, Johnston stated:
Looking back, however, there was seemingly a paradox in the ideas of Olin Johnston. A southern liberal in the mid-twentieth century was caught in a hard position, or so it appears to us today. Such a person was in favor of reform for the white laborers, the poor, and the farmers. But at the same time, he/she opposed any legislation for civil rights. This seems now to be contradicting viewpoints; nevertheless, it was natural to Johnston. He dedicated much of his Senatorial career to both platforms. In fact, perhaps most ironic of all, in 1944, Johnston unsuccessfully attempted to make the Democratic party a segregated "private club." The federal Supreme Court had ruled in favor of blacks being able to vote in primaries, but Johnston, along with most South Carolinians, desired to keep their segregated system.
Despite this apparent contradiction, Olin Johnston, the "cotton mill boy," did have strong convictions about working for the people. He strongly supported the Democratic party and their policies during the New Deal. His whole political career, he fought for reform in South Carolina, achieving many of his goals. And he took his positions very seriously:
"In this hour of victory, I am humbled by my appreciation of the responsibility that is mine. And my only ambition is that with the help of the Almighty God I may so conduct myself as to justify the confidence placed in me by the people of South Carolina."
"Oh, I've been a politician since I was fourteen years old. You know, it's right funny how I decided to go into politics. When I was fourteen, Cole Blease was raising Cain. I thought he was the greatest man in the world. I decided right then, the same day, I was going to be Governor of South Carolina. And the most ironic thing about it was the fact that when I finally got to be Governor it was Blease I had to beat. Strange things happen in politics."
"I come now to this subject that has been paramount in the minds of South Carolinians for a long time, the State Highway Department. I have maintained in the past and I reiterate now that the Highway Department should be restricted to the construction and maintenance of roads in South Carolina. It has taken over other duties, and other business with which it has no rightful connection, and has thus exercised an undue influence among the people."
"During my administration as Governor of South Carolina I have backed the reforms and policies of President Roosevelt one hundred percent. In South Carolina, which is the most Democratic of the states, the policies of the New Deal which I have enthusiastically supported since he was nominated at the Chicago Convention have lost none of their popularity. My campaign for the Senate will be based on a record of continued unshakable loyalty to the Democratic platform and the head of our party, President Roosevelt."
Biography Resource Center
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920. Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1982.
The Greenville News.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1995.
Huss, John E. Senator for the South. Doubleday and Company (Garden City, New York), 1961.
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