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John C. West, 81; Ex-Governor of South Carolina

March 23, 2004|From Associated Press

Former Democratic Gov. John C. West, who helped smooth racial tensions in South Carolina in the years after highway patrolmen shot and killed three black stu- dent protesters, has died. He was 81.

West, who served as governor from 1971 to 1975, died Sunday at his home in Hilton Head Island, S.C., after a lengthy battle with cancer, said former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian.

"I've lost my close friend, and South Carolina has lost its leader for racial harmony," said U.S. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, (D-S.C.), who attended The Citadel with West.

In an interview with the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., some months ago, former President Carter said that West was a trailblazer in race relations.

"He was and has always remained way ahead of his time, not only in race relations, but also in a deep commitment to make sure that every citizen of South Carolina was given an opportunity for good education and healthcare," Carter said. "His heart was in the right place and still is."

West hired James Clyburn as a senior aide, becoming one of the first governors to hire a black man to such a position.

He later tapped Clyburn to run the new State Human Affairs Commission that West set up in 1972. Clyburn went on to become the state's first black U.S. representative since Reconstruction.

The commission was set up four years after the Orangeburg Massacre, in which highway patrolmen opened fire on a civil rights protest at the historically black South Carolina State University. Three students were killed and 27 were wounded.

In 1997, the commission celebrated its 25th anniversary, and West said it sent a message "that we had put aside racial divisions.... I'd like to think this was a major turning point in race relations, because it set up communications where [problems] could be addressed before it reached a crisis point."

West also pushed plans through the Legislature to create the state's second medical school at the University of South Carolina.

"He was a governor who embraced the change that occurred in South Carolina and challenged South Carolina to do better," said former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges.

Born in Camden, S.C., West graduated from The Citadel and served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina.

West began his political career in the 1950s, serving in the state Senate from 1954-66 and as lieutenant governor from 1967-70.

When West's term ended as governor, he went on to set up law practices in Camden and Hilton Head. In 1977, President Carter appointed him ambassador to Saudi Arabia, where he served until 1981. He returned to South Carolina, where he became a professor of Middle East Studies at the University of South Carolina.

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