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Exclusionary Clubs Subtle Form Of Racism, Black Leaders Say

March 11, 1987

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ Some black leaders say there is an unwritten and harmful rule at the more prestigious private clubs in South Carolina: Blacks need not apply.

″This is our own version of apartheid in social and corporate America,″ said Nelson Rivers, executive secretary of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ″It’s a disservice not only to the state economically, but it’s a disservice to the state morally and ethically.″

What makes the issue particularly important to blacks is that the clubs are the ″informal board rooms of corporate America,″ said J.T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League.

Club members ″talk about economic issues that have an impact on our education system and our social system,″ McLawhorn said. ″They are the movers and shakers.″

State Sen. Theo Mitchell last week introduced legislation suggested by Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission Chairman Elliott ″Duby″ Thompson that would prohibit organizations from receiving a license to sell alcohol if they discriminate on the basis of race, religion or sex.

Gov. Carroll Campbell said the state shouldn’t force private clubs to adopt non-discriminatory membership policies, and that blacks and whites should work with each other to smooth out the problems.

Campbell, a member of the Summit Club in Columbia, said he would not quit going to private clubs that don’t have black members to set an example.

Summit Club manager Forrest Akers said the club had no rules against black members. But he said it doesn’t have any black members and declined further comment.

The issue has simmered in South Carolina for years. In 1985, black IBM executive Charles Savage was denied membership in the Spring Valley Country Club, even though he was nominated by one of the state’s top executives. The club has no black members, but denies it excludes blacks.

″I guess I fooled myself into thinking that things changed more than they had,″ Savage said in a recent interview with The Columbia Record. ″Prejudice is very subtle ... It’s like trying to pick up mercury.″

After the incident, IBM transferred Savage to Rye Brook, N.Y., which he said he requested because his children were denied access to white circles. But he insists he likes South Carolina and ″I may decide to go back there and live some day.″

The issue has been spotlighted in recent weeks by comments by Columbia business leaders who say private clubs without black members hurt the capital city’s ability to attract businesses.

″When companies are seeking to locate in a place, they really want to know about the racial climate,″ said James Clyburn, state human affairs commissioner. ″I believe (the clubs) are going to weigh heavily on South Carolina’s competitive position.″

But Frank Smith, president of the Palmetto Club in Columbia, said the clubs have little impact on where a business decides to locate.

″I have heard on a number of occasions that private clubs may have a discriminatory policy,″ Smith said. ″We do not. But if they do, I have never heard that it has had any impact on economic development.″

″The club has no policy in respect to race, creed, color or religion,″ Smith said. ″There are lady members of the club, there are Jewish members of the club. There are no black members of the club, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had any apply.″

A prospective Palmetto Club entrant must be sponsored by three members and must know three other members. Then it’s up to the membership committee.

J. Mac Holladay, director of the State Development Board which seeks new industry for the state, and Dick Greer, the board chairman, said they don’t know of an instance where the private clubs have prevented a business from locating in the state.

″I don’t know that it’s been a major issue either way,″ Greer said.

″This is certainly not a Southern issue, or a South Carolina issue,″ Holladay said. ″This is the third state I’ve worked in, and every one has had private clubs.″

Clyburn said the clubs put blacks at a disadvantage in the workplace.

″I think it’s beyond racism. It’s sort of a class thing,″ Clyburn said. ″It’s the ins against the outs. Who’s in, stays in; who’s out, stays out.″

″What you have to do is not look at whether it’s racially motivated, but whether it has a racial impact. And it does,″ he said.

Greer opposes state involvement, such as the proposal to refuse liquor licenses for clubs that discriminate.

″I suppose it should be addressed by society as a whole as a moral issue,″ he said. ″I think the ability to have private associations in this country is a very important right and one we should not infringe upon.

″But at the same time, it’s important that groups like that ... should question their membership practices and whether they’re moral or not.″

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