James F. Byrnes was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 2, 1882. (He falsified his year of birth in order to become a court reporter-stenographer in 1900. As a result, his birth year is often reported as 1879.) Although his formal education ended at age fourteen, Byrnes became a lawyer and had an influential role in the political careers of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon.
Byrnes held an array of public offices and suffered electoral defeat only once, in 1924, for refusing endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. He represented South Carolina in the House (1911-25) and Senate (1931-41). In the Senate, he spearheaded much of his friend Franklin Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal legislation.
Byrnes was sworn in as associate justice of the Supreme Court in July 1941. FDR appointed him director of the office of Economic Stabilization in May 1942, and director of the Office of War Mobilization in May 1943. Popularly known as “assistant president for domestic affairs,” Byrnes had authority over production, procurement, and distribution of all civilian and military goods, manpower allocation, and economic stability.
Byrnes attended the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and was appointed secretary of state (1945-47) by President Truman with whom he attended the Potsdam Conference. Byrnes represented the U.S. on the “Council of Foreign Ministers,” assembled to write the WWII peace treaties. For these efforts, he was recognized as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1946.
Although a segregationist, while governor of South Carolina (1951-55), Byrnes ensured passage of anti-mask and anti-cross burning bills (rebuffs to the Klan) and created a sales tax intended to bring parity to the state’s deplorably maintained minority schools. However, the Civil Rights movement called for deeper change and Thurgood Marshall (and the NAACP External) challenged the state’s “separate but equal” policy with a lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott. Fearing Marshall’s success would evoke a violent backlash from white demagogues and undercut his own efforts, Byrnes had the state’s lawyer admit to gross inequities and propose a detailed plan for improved schools which the court would monitor. Byrnes prevailed locally, but Marshall rolled the case into Brown v. the Board of Education, a successful national challenge to Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
As with John C. Calhoun a century earlier, Byrnes’s position on state’s rights became ever more pronounced. He led disaffected Southern Democrats to endorse Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election because the Republican platform stated it was the responsibility of the state, rather than federal government, to carry forth civil rights reform. After suffering a long illness, Byrnes passed away in April 1972.
- The above photograph of M. Kalish’s statue of James Byrnes is one of a series depicting the Kiplinger Editors Building in Washington, D.C. found in the Horydczak Collection. Read the article “Discovering Theodor Horydczak’s Washington” for a guided tour through the collection and the nation’s capital.
- The section on The Civil Rights Era, in the online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship provides an overview of African-American history through the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas’s Central High School — a direct result of Thurgood Marshall’s successful argument of Brown v. Board of Education. See also “With an Even Hand” Brown v. Board at Fifty.
- Search across the collections of photographs and prints on South Carolina for images of James Byrnes’ home state.
- Search Today in History on the terms New Deal and depression to learn more about Roosevelt’s recovery programs and Congressional legislation supporting them.