Rebel With a Cause
An interview with Gilda Cobb-Hunter
BY BRETT BURSEY
This conversation was recorded a few days after Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was elected to lead the Democratic Party in the House. She is the first black since Reconstruction, and the first woman ever, to lead a party in the state General Assembly.
For nearly 20 years Cobb-Hunter has worked at CASA/Family Systems, a nonprofit agency in Orangeburg that serves survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence. She was first elected to the House in 1992.
This interview was edited for length.
* You were 12 years old when the Civil Rights Act passed. What are your recollections about that time?
I went to an all-black elementary school and an all-black high school, except for my junior year. In Florida to deal with integration there was something called "freedom of choice." In 1968, when I was a sophomore, my younger brother and I decided we would try the white school just to see what it was like.
It was all right. I don't recall anything profound being learned there, and I decided that one year was enough, and I went back to the all-black school. I learned all that I learned through an all-black, segregated school system, and I really believe that black folks lost something through integration.
I remember having all black teachers who knew my parents and who felt real comfortable with disciplining us. And I remember carrying a concern and being pushed to excel. Black teachers did not accept mediocrity. I clearly remember my mama and daddy telling all of us -- and there were seven of us -- "You get an education, you get it in your head, and white folks can't take it out."
*You sound like you're a segregationist or, in today's terms, a nationalist.
The thing that I'm saying about integration is that gradually, over the years, integration caused us to lose black teachers, particularly black male teachers. What we see now is a bunch of women, primarily white women, and we have to make the connection of what our children are seeing in public schools and the issue of role models. There is a problem if at the impressionable ages all children see is people who don't look like them.
When I was a kid black people couldn't be anything but teachers and preachers, for the most part. Integration gave us other options and opened up other opportunities. People, black males especially, who would have been teachers had other options. That's the effect of integration I'm talking about.
* What did your parents do to make a living?
* When did you first take a liking to politics?
* What did you study at Florida A&M University?
I got involved in the McGovern presidential campaign in my sophomore year in college, in 1972, driving people to the polls, licking envelopes and that kind of thing.
I married Terry Hunter in graduate school in August of 1975. He was a public school teacher. Right after we married we moved to Ohio. After he got his MFA at Ohio State, he took a job at S.C. State, and we moved to Orangeburg in fall of 1977.
For several months all I did was sit at home and wonder why we moved to this godforsaken place. I remember saying, "Golly, where are we? These people are in a time warp."
I have to be honest and say that it took me 20 years to fully appreciate living in South Carolina. The one thing I did like about Orangeburg was the number of people of color that I saw working in professional positions and in elected positions.
I didn't grow up seeing black lawyers, black doctors. Coming to Orangeburg I was amazed at the black professional community.
* Any kids?
In the fall of 1979 I saw an ad for rape crisis training and I decided to take the course. Before we left Ohio a good friend of mine was a victim of date rape. She came to my apartment after she was raped, and I don't remember being very helpful to her. I told myself, "If I ever get an opportunity to learn something about this issue I'm sure going to do that."
For the six years I worked at DSS I was a volunteer at CASA [Citizens Against Sexual Assault]. There was no office staff and the organization was all volunteers. It became a job in 1985.
I was never happy at DSS. I had two problems at DSS. One was that I had three names, and that freaked them out. The other was that I always attended County Council meetings. I would speak out on things that interested me, and political people knew who I was. I've always run into resentment from people who think I should not speak as much as I do.
* When did you get involved in politics in Orangeburg?
I had always maintained I would not run for office. I love politics, issues development and all of that. But because I consider myself to be a very private person, I always maintained that I didn't want to run for office. Period. I didn't want people coming up to me in grocery stores with their problems. I always saw myself as working behind the scenes, but I was always encouraging other people to run.
I started this organization in the late '80s called Women of Color Political Network. It's defunct now but we were a statewide effort trying to encourage women of color to run for office.
When this seat became vacant [after the incumbent, white Democrat Ken Bailey, was indicted for Lost Trust] I was very, very involved in politics at all levels. People came to me and said they wanted me to run, that it was time to put my money where my mouth is.
I didn't want to run. The only time I had tried to get elected was for party office and I lost. I ran against Ken Bailey for state executive committeeman and lost.
I was seen as a radical and still an outsider, and a lot of that was because of my work with the Rape Crisis program. The attitude was that this was not the kind of work that women of color got involved in; this was white women's work.
I heard a comment by an African-American woman here in Orangeburg who said, "You know, I've lived in Orangeburg all my life and I've never heard of no rape or child sexual assault until Gilda Cobb-Hunter came along, and I think that she just needs to shut up sometimes."
I said, "What are you saying, that I brought rape and child sexual assault to Orangeburg -- that it wasn't here before I came? Let me assure you it was here, the people just didn't have anywhere to go. That may be why you didn't know about it."
It was that kind of attitude, that I was talking about stuff I shouldn't be talking about, and I was considered to be pretty radical and a feminist. I talked about choice and issues that were associated with white women.
I decided to run for two reasons. I talked it over with Terry and he was very supportive. And I prayed about it. I grew up in a Baptist church with a grandmamma who had a deep and abiding faith in a higher power.
I don't label myself as a Christian but a person who believes in a higher power, a spiritual person who would do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Religion to me has too much baggage associated with it. For us to think that Christianity is the only religion is a bit myopic.
* Doesn't this shock some of your black constituents who are very religious?
My point is that I believe it is enough to believe in a higher power and what you call God is neither here nor there as long as that belief is there. If you don't have that belief, that's fine too. I don't think it's my place to force my beliefs on other people, I really don't.
Let me say one other thing as to why I am the way I am. I had a guy tell me one time, "Gilda, your daddy must own an orange grove or something down there in Florida for you to be the way you are. You've got to have rich parents. You just can't be poor and speak out the way that you do."
I shared with him, "No, my daddy don't own no citrus grove, I come from working-class people." But what my parents did was to instill in us two things. One was the belief that we are as good as anybody else and the other was to not be afraid of white people, that they were no better and, in a lot of cases, some of them were worse than we were.
One thing that I noticed about African-Americans when we moved here was their hesitancy to speak or to deal with white people, to challenge them in any way. That is second nature with me. It has nothing to do with white or anything else, it has to do with us being brought up to say what we want to say and to not be afraid of it. To stand for something or you'll fall for anything.
It's been obvious to me in the 20 years that I have been involved in South Carolina politics that we have a disparate level of black aggressive, progressive leadership -- if you look at Georgia and North Carolina. I was told that it was because slavery was particularly brutal here. What you are talking about is a mindset that has gone through generations.
What I'm sorry to say is that class -- meaning those who have and those who have not -- is, in my opinion, more of a factor than race. The problem here is that you can't get poor whites to understand that they have more in common with poor blacks than not. Part of why that is so difficult for them to understand is because the Republican Party has done a masterful job of using wedge issues like the [Confederate] flag to keep whites thinking that they are "better than."
The danger is that as long as people in power can keep poor whites focused on whether the flag is flying atop the State House it keeps them from focusing on their pocketbooks and the fact that they aren't making enough money to live on and the fact that if their kid is sick they can't pay for them to go to the doctor.
It's an old game. Right after the Civil War plantation owners used the white skin privilege argument to keep the newly freed slaves and poor whites from getting together. When you look at people who are involved in the Republican Party now, particularly those who wave the flag, what you find is that a lot of them are poor whites.
If the masses ever wake up and understand they have more in common with poor working-class African-Americans and people of color than they do with rich Republicans, there will be real change and reconciliation among the races in this state. That can't happen without us resolving the class issue.
* How do we do that? Can the Democratic Party lead us...
That was up until political parity between Democrats and Republicans in this state. Then what you found was that people who were Democrats as a matter of convenience and political expediency found themselves in a quandary because Republicans started challenging and offering candidates. And, hey, if I'm a white Democrat in a white district, I'm going to run as a Republican because it's easier to get elected. It's a matter of convenience and political expediency, not philosophy.
Look at those who left and said that the Democratic Party left them. That's crap. The Democratic Party didn't leave them. The Democratic Party didn't change its philosophy. What they decided was that they didn't feel like working hard to maintain.
This will change in South Carolina and across the country when white Democrats decide that they want to stand and fight. When white folks in South Carolina and across this country decide that it is not OK to have a political party that is associated with one race and have another that is associated with other races. I can't do that as a person of color. It's up to white people to decide that they would rather stand and fight.
* Did your unanimous election to be Minority Leader of the House mean that the white Democrats who didn't support you
were changed in some way?
A lot of emphasis was spent on the race issue, and very little on the gender issue, which was also a part of this. There were women around the state, both women of color and white, who were very angry at what they saw occurring because they saw it as a gender issue.
I had a lot of white women who said, "Gilda, I think it is a shame what they are doing to you, clearly you are qualified." People out there started calling these fellows.
* Most people don't vote. Do you think progressives should put their energy into strengthening the Democratic Party or
into building an independent force that can work both inside and outside of the party?
We're in a real critical time here in South Carolina. If the trends continue in November 1998, the trends meaning fewer people vote and the Democratic base continues to decline, we are going to have David Beasley for four more years. That is the worst thing that could happen to progressives in this state.
I had somebody suggest to me that the way to deal with the situation of my election was for black folks to stay home in November and teach a lesson to the Democratic Party. I said, "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of." Black folks have already dropped out of the political process.
Hell, that's why we've got David Beasley. That's why we've got all these Republicans here, because people of color have stopped voting in South Carolina. Since 1990, the numbers in each general election have gone down.
If we stay home in November of '98 we might as well put out the fire and leave the state because it will be so long before we rebound from this Republican onslaught, and the damage will be so severe. I don't think people have a full grasp of just how serious this is.
The difference is that in the past, when we didn't have a cabinet form of government, the effects were not like they are now. We had a pretty strong legislature, and people of color and poor people could go the legislative route for remedies. You can't do that anymore because the legislature's power is diminished.
We strengthened our governor, who appoints a cabinet, which answers to the governor. And if you've got somebody like Beasley the only way you are going to have access is with money or by being some kind of special interest. Where do you think that leaves poor people?
* As minority leader are you going to have to tiptoe around the class issue?
I think it is important to raise the issue and it goes back to what I was saying about how people here don't speak out enough.
I value language -- the power of language and the voice. And it's not about winning always. There are some who say to me that they couldn't be a Democrat in the House because they never win anything. What that says to me is that you are in elective office because your agenda is about winning. That's not why I'm in public office.
I'm in public office to make a difference and to try to help people. I don't have to win a vote in order to do that. I believe that sometimes I can make a difference just by making sure that the issues are put on the table.
So I see the position of minority leader as a bully pulpit, one that will allow me to put the message of the Democratic Party out and up front. I have never walked away from a challenge, and I see this as a challenge.
* What's the message?
* Would you encourage people, in this case it's certainly mostly white men, in the Democratic Party who don't embrace the
platform to go somewhere they are more comfortable?
What we have done is to allow the Republicans to label all of us as liberals, the party of the blacks, tax-and-spend, all the labels that Henry McMaster trots out. And we just kind of look at it and say, "Oh, that's ridiculous," but we have not, on a consistent level, had an organized response to attacks from Republicans.
And the other part of it is that white people in South Carolina have got to decide that they want to be involved, or they don't. They either like the direction this state is going in, or they don't.
And they have got to decide that they are Democrats not by convenience but that they are Democrats because of what they agree with in the party platform.
It's not a litmus test. That's not what I am suggesting. But on core Democratic principles, on the core values, we've got to decide.
* Core values being?
We've got to stop yielding the values argument to Republicans. We've got to reframe the family values issue in two ways: whose family and whose values?
The question would be, was Jesus a Democrat or Republican. Think about the work he did. He helped people, he cared for the poor. He went around touching outcasts and lepers and all of that. Do you think a Republican would do that? It's a facetious kind of question, but we have got to take the values message back from them.
* What role do you see the Progressive Network being ultimately able to play in reframing the business of politics.
There are a lot of people out there who would do the right thing if they thought that by doing the right thing they would be supported. If you want politicians to consistently do the right thing, then you've got to provide political cover for them doing it.
* You are probably the only representative to ever get up on the floor and say "I am pro-union." How does that play
* But they keep voting for you.
The other thing is that I have never gotten confused for one minute about who I am. Who I am is much much more than a legislator. The person I am I became before I was a legislator, so these titles don't mean anything to me.
* What is the most important thing to do this session?
We have pending in the House Ways and Means committee a bill, if we pass it, that will allow for development in rural communities that has not occurred in this state. This bill recognizes that every county in South Carolina won't attract a BMW. What it does is to allow banks to invest in communities and receive tax credits for it.
You can't sit around and wait for people to invest in poor communities because it is the right thing to do; you've got to treat development in poor communities just like you do development any place else -- that is, give business a reason to do it.
* Are you a liberal?
I'm saying it's time out for that. It's time for us to move beyond that, to move into substance, and to recognize that none of us are going anywhere and we all need to learn to work together for the good of this state and this country.