Tom Turnipseed has devoted most of his political life to stumping for George C. Wallace and to cheating on desegregation by organizing all-white private schools. This year, he is hoping that black votes will make him governor of South Carolina.
Preaching at black churches and attacking the death penalty in the state Senate because "it has been used almost exclusively against my black brothers." Turnipseed is frenetically trying to forge a coalition of poor whites and blacks, angry farmers and suspicious consumers. Along the way, he is stirring a political storm potentially unprecedented in southern politics since Huey Long harangued his way to power as Louisiana's "Kingfish" five decades ago.
Across Dixie this year, ex-segregationist politicians who once vied to "outnigger" their opponents are chasing or trying to neutralize the increasingly strong black vote. One-fourth of South Carolina's one million registered voters are black, a change Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), seeking reelection, has paid tribute to by recently enrolling, with much fanfare, his 6-year-old daughter in an integrated school.
For the most part these candidates are content to proclaim that race is no longer the overriding issue of southern politics and that they are now committed to working for better relations. Turnipseed is running an entirely different type of southern campaign by aggressively suggesting that white southerners have a lot to atone for on race.
Lunch with the 41-year-old white lawyer and state senator at the Sunset Grill and Restaurant on Highway 321 outside Columbia gives a feel for the "populism without racism" campaign that he is running and the major political changes it signifies for the entire south.
As the waitress finishes taking his order and sets a glass of iced water on the table. Turnipseed -- whose easily remembered name appears to be no handicap here and may even become a fund-raising asset -- swings into a high-speed monologue on his plan to sweep away the power structure in South Carolina.
His explanation of his nearly mystical conversion from Wallace campaign organizer to NAACP member is completed by the time the waitress returns with corn muffins. His blast at the "gigantic rip-off" that electric companies are perpetrating on the nation's poor heralds the arrival of steaming plates of beef stew, okra and rice. The waitress catches only snatches of this, and of Turnipseed's feeling that "survival is the key issue for all political campaigns now" because atomic bombs "can knock the Earth off its axis into the sun and end it all for us."
Now, the candidate for governor, whose physique and looks are not the least of his campaign assets in this state, shifts rapidly into an assertion that "we men have no more reason to fear woman and the equal rights amendment today than we had to fear eating in restaurants with blacks 20 years ago." The waitress stops short and interrupts the conversation. Turnipseed has touched an issue that touches her.
"I just want to tell you, Mr. Turnipseed, that I'm sorry I haven't met you or known about what you stand for before now," she says. "Or I would've been working for your campaign. You're saying what the ordinary people stand for. Give me some of those Turnipseed buttons so I can pass 'em out for you."
Grinning broadly, Turnipseed digs into his pocket for the green "T" lapel badges and -- truly -- for packets of turnip seeds, jacketed in bright golden covers that contains pleas for money for his effort in the four-way June Democratic Party primary contest.
This is a slice of the constant and at times manic reaching out for issues and emotions to be roused that Turnipseed practices in trying to build a coalition best described as wildly improbable until now. Turnipseed describes it as "a jigsaw puzzle" whose main pieces would be Wallace's frustrated "little people" and the newly enfranchised black voters of South Carolina. The "pointy head bureaucrats" in Washington metamorphose into "corrupt senior senators" in the state legislature, and the big utility companies are included as campaign villains.
For the state's interlocked political and business establishment, Turnipseed has developed into the political equivalent of Howard Beale in the movie, "Network," voicing an almost incoherent but sharply felt anger at the way things are.
His fellow state senators describe Turnipseed publicly as a demagogue and "touched in the head to boot." They predict he will self-destruct before election day; but increasingly they are concerned that if he doesn't, Turnipseed could ride a still gathering wave of discontent into the antebellum governor's mansion here.
Typically, he says he will refuse to live in the mansion -- "there in Tara, where the black prison inmates are dressed up in tuxedos serving champagne, which I'm sure ain't cheap, for His Excellency and guests.These people just don't want to admit that all of that is "Gone With the Wind," but buddy it sure is." Instead, he says he will turn it into a museum.
"Tom has done something other white politicians won't do," said Glenda Suber, a 23-year-old black journalism school graduate who helps run the "media" office in Turnipseed's modest campaign headquarters on the outskirts of Columbia. "Most of these white southerners won't admit that they ever had any prejudice."
"If you had told me two years ago I would one day sit down in a room full of rednecks and listen to a Wallaceite and agree to support him. I would have said you were crazy," added Wilma Neal, another black campaign aide who recalls being so enraged and shocked by the killing of three black students at Orangeburg, S.C., a decade ago that she "got into preaching hatred of all white folks for a while."
But it happened when she went to a meeting of the statewide consumer protest group Turnipseed helped to organize. Now Suber and Neal are working to try to convince the large number of blacks who appear to remain unconvinced by Turnipseed's swift racial turnaround that "poor whites and blacks are both suppressed peoples and have to come together behind someone who represents both communities."
On top of Turnipseed's "Trust Me" problem with blacks, he will also be bucking the established black leadership in the state, which is expected to support an "Establishment" candidate. Lt. Gov. Brantley Harvey, an uncontroversial traditional politician, or Richard Riley, an early supporter of Jimmy Carter's presidential candidacy who is running as a moderate reformist candidate. Also in the race is former congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn, who lost to the Republican incumbent, James B. Edwards, in the 1974 gubernatorial campaign.
Turnipseed's fate in the primary should also provide a measuring rod of how far a white southern politician can go now in aggressively courting black votes without losing white support at the ballot box. The bland stance his opponents and most politicians in the south are taking on race as an issue suggests that they disagree with Turnipseed's calculations.
Bolstered by advice from his cousin, Morris S. Dees Jr., who helped mastermind George McGovern's 1972 fund raising campaign, Turnipseed hopes to raise up to $200,000 with televised appeals, rallies and door-to-door solicitation, in which the "little people" will be asked to stuff dollar bills into turnip buckets. Not expecting to get any corporate contributions, Turnipseed is depending to a great extent on "free media," as campaign consultants call news coverage of Turnipseed's almost daily exploits, which have included getting arrested with protesting farmers.
Turnipseed concedes that he had been a most unlikely candidate for the racial alchemy that he says began to occur about three years ago. And he deals forthrightly with the mental health problems in his past, a question that is likely to surface as the campaign heats up.
Born in Mobile, Ala. Turnipseed says he received electric shock treatment over a total of nine weeks between the ages of 16 and 20. "I had the kind of depression many teenagers get. Now I go around and talk to mental health groups, pointing out that the treatment helped me bottom out at an early age. I want to give hope to young people who may have problems, too."
Turnipseed was graduated from law school at the University of North Carolina and returned to Alabama, where he worked as a principal campaign organizer for Wallace in the 1968 and 1972 runs for the presidency. His feelings for civil rights in those days can be measured by the name he chose for his son, now 9 -- Jefferson Davis Turnipseed.
"I wouldn't name him that today," Turnipseed said at the Sunset Grill. "I was attracted to George Wallace and to that old plantation aura. I thought I could moderate him on race. I was wrong on that, and I was wrong on blacks overall. We've got to admit we were wrong, admit we were racist, if we are going to get change. People ask me now if I'm a nigger-lover. Well, I'm a people-lover, and mightly late in coming there."
Such changes began occuring after he settled in 1971 in South Carolina, where he operates a successful law practice specializing in personal injury suits in automobile accident cases. Attending NAACP conventions to look for political support in what turned out to be a surprisingly strong and victorious race for the state Senate, and becomeing a friend to several black lawyers "made me see how wrong I had been," he said.
It is not, however, Turnipseed's attitude on race that infuriates both his colleagues in the all-white Senate, the most powerful body in the state government here, and the leaders of large business and financial institutions. It is the detailed, determined and daily attacks he makes on what he alleges is an implicit conspiracy between the political establishment and big business -- especially the utility companies -- to bleed consumers and line their own pockets.
"The power companies have paid $3 million in legal fees and retainers to the present members of the state legislature, which elects the members to the state commission that regulates those companies," he charges, giving a detailed breakdown of payments to the most important members of the state Senate.
"It is not an accident that you find three of the four most profitable electric company operations in the country happening here in South Carolina, or that we have the lowest rates for high-volume industrial use for electricity while the elderly people who worked all their lives in those textile mills are getting eaten up by high rates and inflation. We've got to change that."
Armed with an array of statistics and case studies he had dug out of federal and state power commission hearings, reports and other records, Turnipseed plans to hammer away in his evangelical style at a few out-of state banks, energy companies and other major stockholders of the local power companies. But he is also grasping for a broader, umbrella issue to bring together the "jigsaw puzzle."
He has settled on the word "survival" as the keystone for the broader effort. Citing statistics that show South Carolina leads the nation in infant mortality and ranks 50th in longevity. Turnipseed argues that "there is a great religious thing going on in this country and the world. The common bond of all religions is survival. The bond among everyone in the world is survival. And now it is all interdependent, because if a first strike comes and with all that TNT in those atomic bombs, buddy, it is on. That is enough TNT to knock the earth off its axis into the sun. . ."
Turnipseed acknowledges he is treated like a political pariah by the rest of the state Senate, but says it does not concern him.