Former Gov. Robert E. McNair, who helped guide the state through a turbulent era of race relations, including the deadly clash between state troopers and black college students known as the Orangeburg Massacre, has died. He was 83.
McNair, who was found to have brain cancer in September, died at an apartment in Charleston early Saturday with his family at his side, said O. Wayne Corley, senior shareholder at the McNair Law Firm.
The Democrat was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. He became governor in April 1965, replacing Donald Russell, whom McNair then appointed to the U.S. Senate to serve the remaining term of the late Olin Johnston. McNair was elected to a full term in 1966 and served until January 1971.
During his time in office, McNair was considered a moderate on civil rights. He appointed more blacks to state commissions and boards than any of his predecessors.
Still, McNair encountered criticism after highway patrolmen opened fire on a civil rights protest at the former South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, killing three students and wounding 27 others on Feb. 8, 1968.
The shooting was the culmination of three days of unrest that started when students decided to protest a bowling alley that refused to allow black people inside. Many blamed the governor for not having better control of the situation at the historically black school, which is now known as South Carolina State University.
McNair refused to speak about the subject for years. But in a biography published in 2006, he took full responsibility.
“The fact that I was governor at the time placed the mantle of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and I have borne that responsibility with all the heaviness it entails for all those years,” said McNair in the book “South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights,” by Philip G. Grose.
McNair entered the Navy during World War II and served almost two years in the Pacific before being discharged as a lieutenant junior grade. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service.
McNair earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina in 1947 and a law degree in 1948. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1950 and served until 1962, when he was elected lieutenant governor.
After leaving the governor’s office in 1971, McNair formed a law partnership that grew into one of the largest firms in South Carolina.
Associated Press writer Harry R. Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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