Since ratifying the Constitution in 1788, South Carolina has had 59 U.S. senators. All 59 were white men.
That changes when the 60th is sworn in on Jan. 3. That day, Tim Scott will make history not only as South Carolina’s first black senator, but as the first black senator from the South in 132 years. He will become only the seventh black senator ever.
The U.S. Senate in 2012, amazingly, has zero black members. How wonderfully ironic that the country’s only African-American senator will represent South Carolina, the land of Strom Thurmond, the state whose Jim Crow laws propelled hundreds of thousands of blacks to other parts of the country in the mid-20th century.
Gov. Nikki Haley said it was the Republican Scott’s conservative record, not his skin color, that prompted her to name him to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who is leaving two years into his term to lead the Heritage Foundation. Either way, it is a momentous development not just for South Carolina but for all of the South.
It also continues Scott’s dazzling, and self-ordained, political rise. In just over four years, Scott, 47, will have gone from the Charleston County Council to the S.C. House to the U.S. House to the U.S. Senate. If that’s surprising to you, it is not to him. This is a man who, when his mentor died when Scott was 17, crafted a life mission statement to have a positive impact on one billion people during his lifetime. Earlier this year, he told the National Journal that the House was training for his next step, implying that he had his eye on DeMint’s seat when DeMint stepped down.
That ambition helped him rise out of a childhood of poverty. He was raised in Charleston by a divorced single mother who worked 16-hour days as a nurse’s assistant. He became a Republican in large part as a result of a mentoring relationship he developed with John Moniz, a Chik-fil-A franchise owner and conservative Christian.
At age 29, Scott won a seat on the Charleston County Council. The next year, 1996, he co-chaired the final Senate campaign of Thurmond, who had been a virulent segregationist for much of his career. Scott said Thurmond’s views had evolved and that he admired the senator’s legendary constituent service.
The National Journal told the story of Scott driving his 89-year-old grandfather to the voting booth in 2008. His grandfather grew up in the segregated South and “it was a wonderful experience to watch” him vote for the first black president of the United States.
And then: “I canceled his vote out,” Scott said.
Scott won his U.S. House seat with the support of the tea party. He opposed raising the debt ceiling in 2011 (saying God had inspired him to vote no) and argued that President Obama could be impeached over the national debt. He posted the Ten Commandments in the Charleston County Council chambers and fought to keep them there. He has sponsored multiple pieces of legislation that would expand gun rights.
We disagree with all of those stances, but we see why Scott is an attractive pick for conservative Republicans. He represents not only their political philosophy, but also their hope to broaden their appeal to a rapidly diversifying nation.
Perhaps someday an appointment like Scott’s can be looked at solely through a political and policy lens. For now, though, it is historic.