This town is the birthplace of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and the county of the same name in which it lies is a stark example of what is at stake in the voting rights debate occurring 500 miles north in Thurmond's Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lawyers and politicians in Washington have elevated that debate into the realm of the abstract, arguing about standards of proof in voting rights cases, about "intent tests" and "effects tests."
Here the issues are much more concrete. Half the population of Edgefield County is black. Until the 1980 census blacks were in the majority. But in the last 100 years a black has not won against a white candidate in Edgefield County.
That disparity has had what blacks here say are predictable results. Streets in white neighborhoods are paved; in many black neighborhoods they are not. White neighborhoods have sewage systems; most black neighborhoods do not.
While white officials want to renovate a gymnasium in a white neighborhood to provide racquetball courts, Norman Dorn, a black chemistry teacher here, says there are no recreation facilities at all in Rosa Hills, a black neighborhood. "We said, 'How about just a basketball court or a tennis court?' but they haven't been willing to go along with us," he said.
Eight years ago some blacks here went to court to overturn the county electoral system, which they said has shut them out of their rightful share of local power.
In 1980, under the old test of what constitutes a voting rights violation, they won their case. Four days later the U.S. Supreme Court said a different test should be used, the test that the Reagan administration, Thurmond and other congressional conservatives want to write into the law.
If the new Supreme Court standard is written into the law, blacks in Edgefield County and in other parts of the country say they believe it will become almost impossible to win a voting rights case.
The problem, as far as Edgefield County blacks are concerned, is the at-large election system.
Although blacks make up a solid majority of registered voters in two of the county's five election districts, there is a county-wide open election where voters can vote for all five county commissioners. Because whites do not support black candidates the blacks don't win.
The trial on Edgefield County's election system was held in 1975 before U.S. District Court Judge Robert F. Chapman. Under the impression that the state legislature was going to address the issue, he withheld his opinion until April 17, 1980.
Then he declared the county election system unconstitutional.
Chapman found that "whites absolutely refuse to vote for a black." The one black on the school board was appointed originally and "obviously serves as a token and at the pleasure of the white power structure," which has not put a white candidate against him in his reelection bids, he said.
No black has ever received a Democratic nomination or been elected to public office against a white candidate in Edgefield County.
He found that blacks were excluded from the jury system, and that, until the trial began, blacks were excluded from county employment.
Even after Strom Thurmond High School was desegregated in 1970 under court order, Chapman noted in his opinion, the school board kept "Dixie" as the school song, "Confederate Rebel" as the school nickname and the Confederate flag as the school symbol at athletic and other events. The school is more than 65 percent black. Many of the whites have transferred to a segregated academy just up the road.
He said Edgefield County has "a long history of racial discrimination in all areas of life. There is bloc voting by the whites on a scale that this court has never before observed, and all advances made by blacks have been under some kind of court order.
"Black voters have no right to elect any particular candidate or candidates, but the law requires that black voters and black candidates have a fair chance of being successful in elections," he said. "Black participation in Edgefield County has been merely tokenism, and this has been on a very small scale."
Chapman, appointed by President Nixon, ordered the county not to hold elections until a "new and constitutional" system could be adopted.
But four days later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Mobile case that plaintiffs must prove that local officials consciously intended to discriminate against blacks. Edgefield County blacks had proved only that the system had the effect of discriminating against them.
Chapman threw out his decision and reopened the case.
Blacks here have not given up. There is a clause in the Voting Rights Act requiring states such as South Carolina, with a history of racial discrimination, to submit any changes in voting laws to the Justice Department for approval.
Edgefield County made changes in 1966 and in 1976 without obtaining the required approval. So the complaint was amended on that technicality to ask the court to force Edgefield County officials to comply with the law. That lawsuit is pending.
The section of the Voting Rights Act requiring certain states to clear electoral changes with the Justice Department is to expire in August.
Last fall the House overwhelmingly approved legislation extending that section indefinitely and clarifying the standards of proof to allow plaintiffs anywhere to prove a violation of the law simply by showing that their election laws are discriminatory in effect.
So far nearly two-thirds of the Senate, 65 members, have agreed to support that bill.
But in spite of specific language in the bill barring any requirement of proportional representation by race, the Reagan administration is strongly opposing the measure and is asking Congress to adopt the "intent" standard. The administration has argued that an "effects" standard would lead to a racial quota system and a rash of lawsuits all over the country.
The leaders of Edgefield County say they believe that whites represent black constituents as well as a black elected official would.
Charles Coleman, the county attorney, bridles at outside criticism that in the county whites refuse to vote for blacks. "I don't think that's any of their business. It's my prerogative, my right. If I want to vote white, it's my business," he said.
"What I can't understand is this: they say the at-large system is diluting the voting strength of blacks. They . . . want a single-member district with a majority of blacks. Doesn't that dilute my voting strength? Also, isn't it gerrymandering? Do two wrongs make a right? Why is it they can set up a district that's predominantly black, but when we do it, it's wrong?
"They want to run it equally, then let's be equal. You can't elevate a person by legislation. The man with the most votes ought to get into office, and I don't believe in quotas. It's like communism. You got nothing and I got something. Let's divide it up. That's what they want."
He insists that when it comes to county services blacks do as well as or better than whites, on the average. He points specifically to the Council on Aging, where he says about 75 percent of the recipients of services are black.
Coleman said the real problem in Edgefield County is that blacks don't vote. "It's apathy on the part of blacks," he said. "It's here for them if they want to take advantage of it."
Mary Ellen Painter, head of the county voter registration board, agreed. "I cannot understand it," she said. "We do everything in our power to try to please everybody. We stay open Saturdays. We do everything we know to try to help. Non-voters, that's our problem. They holler 'Register,' but they just don't vote."
Blacks in Edgefield County concede that there are problems with black voter turnout, but they say that even with those problems they would win two of the five seats on the county council if the elections were by district rather than at-large.
Willie Bright, a black born here 44 years ago, has worn out the tires on his car trying to get blacks to register and vote. But he understands why they don't.
"If you've never been poor, there's no way you can understand," he said. "Whites don't understand poor blacks. Lots of blacks don't understand poor blacks. Black poor people expect white people to run everything. It's always been like that. When you're poor, you're worried about existing today, not what's going to happen tomorrow."
Nathaniel Jackson, president of the local NAACP, said most Edgefield County blacks work on "white-owned farms, in white-owned kitchens. They may rent their homes from whites. In countless little ways they are still dependent on whites. And they are reluctant to take a chance on offending those whites."
Bright added that blacks are still not comfortable going to the 142-year-old county courthouse on the old-fashioned town square to register. It is still a place where whites are in charge, and, historically, the courthouse meant nothing but trouble for blacks.
A poor, rural county, Edgefield is a place of sharp contrasts, of lovely, rolling peach orchards and graceful antebellum mansions and tar paper shacks with corrugated metal roofs. There are poor whites as well as blacks, but the mansions and the peach orchards belong to the whites. The people in charge here are white.
Although some blacks have been hired by the county in recent years, Jackson said, "There are no blacks in the upper levels. We work on the roads, we ride the trucks, we do the mechanical work."
He said he feels that the dependence on whites is reinforced by not having black elected officials.
"Every time we want or need something, we have to go to white folks to get it. It's as if every time you get what you want, even though you might have a right to it, they act like it's a big favor. And our county council, our school board, want to keep it that way."
Jackson says he and the other blacks aren't trying to take over the county, that they don't want proportional representation. He just wants his children to be able to look around and see blacks with responsible jobs, blacks doing something other than carrying out the orders of white people.
"I'm called a troublemaker. But if I have to make trouble to make sure my kids can participate in the electoral process, I'm going to be a militant."