Remembering Civil Rights Trailblazer Juanita Goggins

Political and civil rights trailblazer Juanita Goggins was discovered dead in her South Carolina home earlier this month. She froze to death at her home, alone. She was the first black woman to be elected to the South Carolina legislature. She was 75. Host Michel Martin remembers Goggins with columnist Andrew Dys of the Rock Hill, S.C. Herald.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in my weekly commentary, I'll tell you about new information about the sorry financial state of the media, so you can weep along with me.

But first, we want to bring you two conversations about mental health and minorities. In a moment, we're going to ask why Alzheimer's disease seems to be affecting minorities disproportionately.

But now we want to remember Juanita Goggins. She was a political trailblazer, the first black woman elected to the South Carolina General Assembly. Her passing made news not just because of who she was, but how she died. She froze to death at home, alone. Her funeral was held this weekend, and we wanted to know more about this remarkable woman, so we called Andrew Dys. He's a columnist with the Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ANDREW DYS (Columnist, Rock Hill Herald): Michel, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Andrew, I really got the sense from the media reports in South Carolina that this death was particularly painful for many people. Why was that?

Mr. DYS: Well, I Mrs. Goggins had been out of the public eye for almost three decades, or really had been for three decades since the onset of her illness. And her accomplishments had been lost to most of the public since that time. And I think that's one of the reasons that it has - came as such a shock, because she is not someone who had been in the public eye for so long.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little more about her? I mean, her biography was certainly very compelling. I mean, the daughter of sharecroppers who then made history in this powerful fashion by joining a legislative body in what have been one of the most segregated states in the country.

Mr. DYS: Well, she was truly an incredible lady. In the late '50s, she came to this area after she finished South Carolina State and was a vital figure in the civil rights movement here, along with her husband at that time, Dr. Horace Goggins, a Rock Hill dentist who was the secretary treasurer of the Rock Hill branch in the NAACP and was a stalwart in the sit-in movement here in Rock Hill, which was the first in South Carolina.

And then through the '60s, she was very influential and important in the integration of schools here, and then in the early '70s became politically active herself.

MARTIN: Now, it was reported that she left public service after three terms because of an illness, and at the time it wasn't - it was not disclosed what that illness was. Do we now know?

Mr. DYS: Well, in certain parts of the community, at the time that her service ended, it was not a secret that she had a mental illness. But as you probably know, in the late '70s, that was not something that was talked about very much, and it was not something that received coverage. So she left service and went and received treatment, but then estranged herself from her family.

MARTIN: And that, but the reports of her death were - had a very poignant feel to it, in the sense that many people talked about how they had tried to reach out to her and tried to stay in contact with her, but it was very difficult. And I wonder, at the funeral, was there a sense of that sadness about being unable to help?

Mr. DYS: Well, at the funeral, it was more of a celebration of her life's accomplishments. There was, as I wrote in Saturday's edition, they - one could not escape from that specter that kind of hung over the funeral about how she passed. But the general sense was for people, including some of her peers who are still around, to talk about the accomplishments that she had made.

There are still several members of the Legislative Black Caucus that served with her that are still alive that spoke lovingly of her courage and what she did for the people of this state. She was the primary sponsor for a full-day kindergarten in South Carolina. Believe it or not, before Mrs. Goggins became a legislator there was not mandatory kindergarten.

She was the primary sponsor for county health departments to test for sickle cell anemia. She just did a lot of great things.

MARTIN: So, I was going to ask you, though, finally, what do you think her legacy will be? I mean, you've noted that many of that civil rights generation are now leaving us, and many of them, their accomplishments are not as well known as many people would like them to be. What do you think her legacy will be?

Mr. DYS: Well, that is a difficult question to answer, because even in 2010 there are only three black women in the South Carolina legislature. And as recently as 10 years ago, there was still just one. The woman who replaced Mrs. Goggins in that same seat, Bessie Moody-Lawrence, held the seat for 12 years before she retired in 2008. So even now there is a disparity in the number of not just black lawmakers, but especially black women in the legislature.

MARTIN: And as we know, and as I've reported on, there are no women in the South Carolina Senate at the moment, so anyway...

Mr. DYS: No there's not.

MARTIN: No. All right.

Mr. DYS: There's 46 senators of which none are women. And there's a hundred and, what, 128 House members of which only three are black women.

MARTIN: Andrew Dys is columnist with the Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina and he was kind enough to join us by phone from his office.

We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DYS: It's my pleasure.

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